Gun violence in the United States is a catastrophic public health problem. Homicide with a firearm is the second leading cause of injury and death for ages 15-24, and suicide with a firearm is the fourth leading cause of injury and death for that age group. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) left many of these issues primarily up to state and local governments, serving as laboratories trying different approaches to addressing gun violence.
One potential viable public health measure to curb gun morbidity and mortality entails firearm education in public schools. In 2010, Virginia passed legislation requiring the education department to create a gun-safety curriculum for public schools. In 2013, Missouri enacted a law permitting gun safety to be taught to first graders. Other States permit individual schools to conduct their own gun safety education. For example, at Craver Middle School in Colorado, a joint effort from gun advocacy group Project Appleseed and the National Rifle Association (NRA) provides students with a three-day program concerning gun safety and operation, including a field trip to the firing range.
Recently, Utah’s legislature enacted a pilot program for an optional firearm safety course for middle and high schools that will cover firearm handling and safety, as well as preparedness and response in the event firearm-related threats arise at school. New legislation has been proposed in Texas, South Carolina, and Washington.
While data show that accidental firearm deaths have steadily decreased, dropping by over 50 percent between 1991 and 2011 (from 1,441 to 600), death or injury from firearms is more likely to come from homicide or suicide. School programs can teach important safety techniques, but they can’t teach children how to deal with a mass shooter. Preventing these acts of violence may require significantly greater coordination among public health, law enforcement, education, and mental health authorities, among others.
It’s important for policymakers considering firearm education to know whether these programs are working in places where they have been implemented. But there is currently no federal funding providing for gun violence research, and as a result, relationships between the various policy choices and their effects on gun violence lack the research necessary to determine which measures are effective. In fact, federal funding prohibits research on gun violence. In the 1990s, Congress ended federal funding of gun violence research in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This ban has continued through incidents like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and was just extended last year. Federally-funded research on the efficacy of public education on gun violence prevention would allow states to learn from each other’s policies, maximizing the value of the states-as-laboratories landscape.
This guest post was prepared by PJ Judd, J.D., with assistance from Clifford M. Rees, J.D., Practice Director at the Network for Public Health Law - Western Region, Arizona State University.
The Network for Public Health Law (Network) provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this document do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.