not with direct knowledge of the altered reality, but with data that attempt to measure that alteration.

The quality of these data is highly variable. We explain in this report how limited is the knowledge of some of the basic facts. For example, we do not know exactly who owns what kinds of firearms or how the owners use them. Moreover, it may not be easy to improve this knowledge. Asking people whether they own a firearm, what kind it is, and how it is used is difficult because ownership is a controversial matter for one or more of several reasons: some people may own a firearm illegally, some may own it legally but worry that they may use it illegally, and some may react to the intense public controversy about firearm ownership by becoming less (or even more) likely to admit to ownership.

Of course these same problems accompany attempts to measure other behaviors (e.g., illicit use of drugs) and yet ways have been developed to address these problems in those instances (for a review see National Research Council, 2001). While not perfect, many substantial resources have been devoted to addressing the measurement issues that the collection of sensitive data raises. As we discuss in this report, this has not happened in the firearms area, in part, because of the substantial opposition to data collection by interest groups resulting in legal restrictions on collecting information about firearms ownership.2


All research must follow some basic standards to be accepted by the community of scholars in a field—firearms research is no different. These standards are well known to scientists, although all of them are not achieved in every research effort and meeting these minimal standards does not guarantee that the completed research will be judged to be a contribution to knowledge. These are necessarily minimal standards. Meeting them does not guarantee a piece of research is sufficiently sound to warrant acceptance of its findings. Another National Research Council committee (2002) recently described the scientific process in terms of “six interrelated but not necessarily ordered, principles of inquiry” (pp. 3-5):

  • Pose significant questions that can be investigated empirically.

  • Link research to relevant theory.

  • Use methods that permit direct investigation of the question.


For example, the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act, also known as the McClure-Volkmer Act, forbids the federal government from establishing any “system of registration of firearms, firearm owners, or firearms transactions or distribution.”

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