New Study Focuses On Gun-Related Child Deaths And Injuries

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Tuesday, July 16, 2019 - 11:51am
Updated: Tuesday, July 16, 2019 - 1:08pm
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Arizona State University
Jesenia Pizarro.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: There have been limits on federal funding for research into injuries and deaths related to firearms for more than two decades. That makes a new study into guns and child deaths and injuries potentially extremely impactful. Twenty researchers worked on the project coming from varying fields including public health. One of them is Jesenia Pizarro, associate professor at ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. I spoke with her and began by asking why there had been a limit on funding this kind of research.

JESENIA PIZARRO: Yes, and it all can be traced back to the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which was included in the funding bills that indicated that research funds, federal funds, cannot be used for lobbying against firearms. And as a result of that I was taken to mean that you couldn't fund research in the area. But in 2018, a clarification was added to the amendment saying that that doesn't forbid the use of federal funds to study the root causes of firearm violence.

GOLDSTEIN: Let's talk about a couple of things. What are some risk factors that come into mind for you and are there things that are risk factors that really don't need to be based on if people just had more information or took different action?

PIZARRO: Well one of the biggest risk factors for victimization and offending is having an easy access to a firearm in the home. So those are things that can easily be manipulated with safety techniques and safety training and safe storage. That can actually help. Another risk factor that's not as easy to manipulate would be substance and drug abuse. But given, right now, the current climate and the current issues related to drug use, this is something that's interrelated. So we know that children and teens who are abusing alcohol and drugs are more likely to be victims and offenders. And then if you combine that with abusing alcohol and drugs and having an easy access to a firearm in the home, then that increases the risk significantly.

GOLDSTEIN: Were there things that you went into that even surprised you?

PIZARRO: Well one of the big things that surprised me was the lack of research in the area. So a lot of the things, we take it as common knowledge, and we live by anecdotes. And when we started doing this work and we started pulling the literature and seeing that you know there there's no study that have examined school risk factors, for example, there's not a lot of work on suicide prevention, which is also one of the areas that we're tackling. So I was very surprised by the lack of empirical evidence to support a lot of the discourse that's going on now. I was also surprised by the inconsistency between the rhetoric and what we know research-wise. So research-wise we know that the findings related to mental health are very inconclusive. Some studies find no relationship, other studies find a moderate relationship, but nationally the discourse tends to be this is a mental health issue. There's not a lot of evidence to support that.

GOLDSTEIN: Well you mentioned how car accidents are still the number one killer of young people. I imagine that's been dramatically reduced as we've seen seatbelt airbags that kind of thing. Are there logical steps, again knowing that there's a disability political bend, other logical things that could be done to prevent gun deaths in the same way that we've been able to at least, not prevent, but based on how many people drive, I imagine the percentages are much more stark when it comes to guns than what comes to cars.

PIZARRO: Yeah, well let me start by saying that, in the past 50 years, due to injury prevention research and heavy funding that went into automobile fatalities, we were able to decrease the auto fatalities among children and teens by 90%. And as you know, we have not decrease the use of cars in the past 50 years. And so we did that by implementing safety techniques, things like the car seat for children, like you mentioned airbags, seatbelts laws. So, and that generally did not infringe on people's right to own a vehicle, even though it's not a constitutional right. So we can implement similar things like that, for example, one of the things that I have been researching is the effect of child access laws, and we know that child access laws have a positive effect on decreasing the mortality and injuries among children and teens. We know that laws, extreme protective order laws, research is starting to show that they have an effect on preventing domestic violence incidents where, unfortunately, children tend to be involved in these incidents as victims as well. So there are commonsense things that we can do and take a page from the automobile fatality research in terms of safety standards that can actually save lives.

GOLDSTEIN: So considering the fact that you've had this, there's been this limit for a quarter century or so as far as doing more research on this, would we be surprised if the average person thought, "oh this is really good research, we're glad you're doing it." Was there anything that surprised you about that in terms of, that maybe more people actually are really, really happy to know that there's real information out there that they can learn from it? Was there a dynamic that surprised you there?

PIZARRO: Well this is an area that it's very has been very welcomed by the general public. And unlike what we see in the news media and the rhetoric politically, more people want to keep their children safe. More people want to know ways to keep their children safe and are receptive to safety tactics and toolkits that we can give them to inform how they do their business every day and how they handle their weapons in the home. So this has generally been considered a taboo type of thing, like you don't want to mention firearms, you don't want to do this type of work. People don't want it. But the reality is that people generally do want it. I haven't encountered someone yet that have told me that we don't want this knowledge, that we don't want this type of research. That's been very surprising and refreshing because, the fact that parents are being involved now and the general public is saying it's enough, there's no reason why 2,500 children need to be dying in this country every year over something that's preventable, is actually giving us, I would say, more momentum to continue doing this type of work and to keep pushing forward.

GOLDSTEIN: Jesenia Pizarro is an associate professor at ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

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