Another day in the U.S., another mass killing with firearms. Terrifying to think how commonplace it has become. Is this an inevitable part of living in the United States? It shouldn’t be.

The current public conversation about firearms is disturbing, because when anyone posts or publicly states the possibility of even what are known as “common sense” gun regulations, such as restrictions on automatic weapons or background checks before purchase in all situations (including so-called gun shows)—there is apt to be an aggressive and hostile backlash. There will probably be backlash to this blog. So be it. And the most recent time when we thought after the Las Vegas mass shooting that there might be a glimmer of light where congress might be willing to at least ban so-called “bump stocks” that allow a semi-automatic weapon to shoot like an automatic weapon—Congress froze and did nothing. (But as of yesterday, the state of Massachusetts has acted to ban them.)

No social scientist or student of social science should be scared off by the ALL-CAPS and/or irrational, accusatory comments—perhaps some are bots or are paid by the firearms companies—purporting to be aggrieved gun owners, asserting that they are just clamoring for what they claim to be their “constitutional rights.” It is not even clear what the framers meant by the second amendment, but we can be sure they had never heard of an AK-47 or an AR-15 when they created the Bill of Rights. For those who want to participate in the conversation, there is highly relevant science that can help us answer the question as to whether the presence of firearms contributes to aggression in general and to gun violence specifically. The answers: Yes, and Yes. Rather worrisome, since the number of firearms in the U.S. in 2017 is 300 million, very close to one per person. Perhaps more disturbing still, half of those 300 million firearms are owned by just 3 percent of Americans—about nine million Americans own about 150 million firearms.

Let’s talk about just a few highlights of the science. Early research is summarized briefly in a 2013 Psychology Today article by Professor Brad Bushman.

Professor Bushman recently published another study, with over 1,000 participants, showing that images of firearms, whether used by police or soldiers on the one hand, or by criminals, on the other, increased the accessibility of aggressive thoughts.

In 2014, Andrew Anglemyer, a scientist from the University of California, San Francisco reported on a meta-analysis, combining the results of sixteen studies, and “…found strong evidence for increased odds of suicide among persons with access to firearms compared with those without access (OR, 3.24 [CI, 2.41 to 4.40]) and moderate evidence for an attenuated increased odds of homicide victimization when persons with and without access to firearms were compared (OR, 2.00 [CI, 1.56 to 3.02]).”

And in October, 2017, a Scientific American article discusses 30 studies that, by and large, show that more guns make us less, not more, safe. This article acknowledges that not every study comes to this conclusion; however, the great weight of evidence tells us that fewer guns make us safer; more guns, less safe. In addition, the author, Melinda Wenner Moyer, describes some serious differences in perspective between the official positions of the NRA on one hand, and those of actual gun owners on the other.

Research on the presence of guns has some of the same kinds of limitations that research on cigarette smoking had: It would not be ethical to do a perfect, prospective study. Could you randomly assign people to gun ownership and see whether they engaged in violence? Therefore research is either correlational (cannot predict cause-effect relationship) or must be lab based, measuring not actual violence, but thoughts, judgments, etc. With enough research of these kinds, the public health risk of cigarettes became accepted science. We are moving in that direction with firearms, but more research would be helpful. The science linking the presence of guns with increased violence could benefit from research by the Centers for Disease Control. But that would require a change in law, because by current law, the CDC is specifically forbidden by law—a law that totally defies common sense and thumbs its nose at science—to study gun violence. (If you are shocked, your reaction is normal.)

So when there is so much scientific evidence pointing in one direction, one has to look at the forces silencing those who would do research, act on the results of research, or even talk about it. This is true with regard to gun violence in the same way it is true of climate change. Who benefits from suppressing science and suppressing all conversation about regulating firearms? The science is strong and growing. We need to talk about how to control and contain the number and/or kinds of firearms in our environment.

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