The inadequacy of data on gun ownership and use is among the most critical barriers to better understanding of gun violence. Such data will not by themselves solve all methodological problems. However, its almost complete absence from the literature makes it extremely difficult to understand the complex personality, social, and circumstantial factors that intervene between a firearm and its use. Also difficult to understand is the effect, if any, of programs designed to reduce the likelihood that a firearm will cause unjustified harm, or to investigate the effectiveness of firearm use in self-defense. We realize that many people have deeply held concerns about expanding the government’s knowledge of who owns guns and what type of guns they own. We also recognize the argument that some people may refuse to supply such information in any system, especially those who are most likely to use guns illegally. The committee recommends a research effort to determine whether or not these kinds of data can be accurately collected with minimal risk to legitimate privacy concerns.
A starting point is to assess the potential of ongoing surveys. For example, efforts should be undertaken to assess whether tracing a larger fraction of guns used in crimes, regularly including questions on gun access and use in surveys and longitudinal studies (as is done in data from the ongoing, yearly Monitoring the Future survey), or enhancing existing items pertaining to gun ownership in ongoing national surveys may provide useful research data. To do this, researchers need access to the data. The committee recommends that appropriate access be given to data maintained by regulatory and law enforcement agencies, including the trace data maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; registration data maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state agencies; and manufacturing and sales data for research purposes.
In addition, researchers need appropriate access to the panel data from the Monitoring the Future survey. These data may or may not be useful for understanding firearms markets and the role of firearms in crime and violence. However, without access to these systems, researchers are unable to assess their potential for providing insight into some of the most important firearms policy and research questions. Concerns about security and privacy must be addressed in the granting of greater access to these data, and the systems will need to be continually improved to make them more useful for research. Nevertheless, there is a long-established tradition of making sensitive data available with appropriate safeguards to researchers.
Difficult methodological issues exist regarding how different data sets might be used to credibly answer the complex causal questions of interest.