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Firearm sales and gun injuries and deaths are on the rise in many places.
On Monday, February 28, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency medicine physician at the University of California Davis Medical Center and directs the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center. He discussed topics including: who owns guns and why; factors driving the recent surge in gun sales; what is known about the links between gun prevalence, gun purchasing trends, and patterns of gun violence; what demographic groups are most affected by gun violence; and ghost guns and other recent developments.
GAREN WINTEMUTE: My name is Garen Wintemute. I’m an emergency medicine physician, and I do research on firearm violence.
Interview with SciLine
What does the research tell us about who owns guns in the United States, and why?
GAREN WINTEMUTE: We know a lot more than we used to about who owns guns in the United States and why they do. I’ll take the second question first. People buy guns more for protection than for all other reasons put together. Coming up second is use in sport—hunting and target shooting and so on. The traditional population of gun owners, I think it’s safe to say, typically white, non-Hispanic men. But for quite some time, the demographic profile of gun owners has been broadening as women purchase firearms, members of underrepresented groups purchase firearms. That’s been going on for quite some years.
Can you discuss recent increases in gun sales, and factors driving the surge?
GAREN WINTEMUTE: There’s been an absolutely unprecedented increase in firearm sales over the last couple of years. It started in January 2020 as we saw a pandemic coming, and then as it arrived, it grew through the spring of 2020 as people became concerned about the advent of violence in late spring and summer, continued right through the fall. 2020 was a federal election year, and that always drives gun purchases. And that election was accompanied by violence. And purchases stayed up actually right through 2021. And purchases have reverted to expected levels only in the last couple of months of 2021 and now the beginning of 2022. The estimate is that there were something like 13 million excess purchases—transactions—purchasing firearms over that period of time, representing at least 15 million excess firearms—not total but above what it would have been predicted by the experience of the preceding four or five years. We’ve never seen anything like it.
What is known about the links among gun prevalence, gun purchasing trends, and gun violence?
GAREN WINTEMUTE: There is, I think, a rapidly improving understanding in the relationship between the prevalence of ownership of firearms and purchasing of firearms and firearm violence. What we’ve known for a long time is that, on balance, the more access there is to firearms in a society, the more firearm violence there is likely to be. And that’s been true looking at trends in individual societies over time in—it’s been known at the individual level looking at what happens when a person purchases a firearm. It’s been known in comparisons of societies with different levels of firearm ownership.
What we’ve learned just in the last couple of years is that during the pandemic, as purchasing picked up across the country, there was, at least early on, a relationship between the degree of increase in purchasing above expected levels and the degree of increase in violence above expected levels coming later on. As 2020 went on, that signal was lost because many other things were contributing to increases in violence. But I think it’s a well-founded statement to say that on the whole, at the population level, whether we’re looking at societies or at individual outcomes, access to firearms is associated with an increase in firearm violence.
Which demographic groups are most affected by gun violence?
GAREN WINTEMUTE: I’m often asked, so who’s at greatest risk from gun violence? And the first thing to do is to be clear what we understand when—what our understanding of gun violence is. People tend to equate gun violence with interpersonal violence—homicide and assault. But both as a researcher and a clinician, I know the bullet doesn’t really care whose finger’s on the trigger. It’s all violence. And we who study this field include suicide as a form of firearm violence. And I say that to set up the answer. If we are talking about interpersonal violence, men are at much greater risk than women, and men of color are at much greater risk than are white, non-Hispanic men. In particular, young Black men are at highest risk for homicide. But if we talk about suicide, age is related, but risk is higher with older age, not lower. Gender is related. Males are, again, at greater risk, but the group at highest risk is white, non-Hispanic men. And their risk goes up with age, not down.
What should people know about ghost guns and other recent developments?
GAREN WINTEMUTE: “Ghost guns” is a very good shorthand for privately manufactured firearms. They are firearms that are produced with no serial number. They’re not traceable. There’s no record of their existence to help solve crimes that are committed with them. And that’s where the term ghost guns come from – comes from. Having said that, ghost guns are an extremely worrisome development. I’m here in California, where in major cities, law enforcement agencies are reporting that 30%, 40%, 50% of all the guns they recover following use in a crime are these anonymously produced ghost guns. They’re going to be a huge problem nationwide as they are in California. They can be manufactured by individuals in their homes. There’s a special milling machine that’s about the size of a desktop laser printer. I could have 10 of them in my office, and each one of them would produce a ghost gun about every 30 minutes.
What trends are you following as you look toward the future of gun violence?
GAREN WINTEMUTE: Another aspect of violence that is rapidly developing, causing great concern to those of us who work in the field that I hope will be on reporters’ radar is the advent of political violence. Let me put this in perspective. There has been, over the last couple of years, a very rapid growth in the – in acceptance of the idea that violence is going to be necessary in order to keep America on the proper path, to paraphrase one of the survey questions that’s been used more than once. And I’ll quantify—10% of adults, about 25 million people, endorse the statement that violence is justified now to put Donald Trump back in office. Thirty percent of adults—not of Republicans but of adults—endorse the statement that President Biden was not legitimately elected. And let’s work with that 10% just for a moment. Talk is cheap, and let’s say that just 10% of those 10% would actually be willing to take action if others around them did. Well, that’s still somewhere on the order of 2 to 2 1/2 million people in the United States, which is larger than the armed forces of almost every country on the planet. It’s a lot of people.
People who study terrorism, who study violent extremism, in government and out, are very, very concerned that in this federal election year, let alone in 2024, we are likely to see the advent of large-scale political violence. And I hope that reporters will be paying attention to that possibility and will recognize if there is a violent event in one part of the country and another in a second and a third someplace else, that these are not isolated events, that it’s the manifestation of a trend that’s been building for a while. It is a major focus of my work at the moment.
What can current research techniques contribute to the understanding of gun violence?
GAREN WINTEMUTE: There is a unifying science to this study of violence. There is more to this than describing individual events and adding up those descriptions. It is possible to make use of data to understand violent events in a deeper way than we’ve been able to before. It’s possible using data to predict risk of violence, both at the population level and at the individual level, better than we have been able to before. And it’s possible to use that scientific evidence to develop better policies and programs than we’ve had in the past. So, I end up very optimistic.
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(Posted February 28, 2022 | Download Video)
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