Addressing our knowledge gaps about firearm injuries and deaths

Editor's note: This is part of a series investigating gun violence from many angles.

Sometimes, it's hard to admit that we don't have all the answers, especially when it comes to gun violence.

Which is where research comes in.

Jesenia Pizarro is an associate professor in ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. She studies homicide and is one of 20 researchers from a dozen universities and health-care organizations taking part in an interdisciplinary study on firearm injuries and deaths of children and teens. The $5 million project is funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

ASU Now spoke with Pizarro to learn more about what questions the study hopes to answer.

Question: Why do people kill each other? 

Answer: Because there are so many types of homicides, with multiple types of motives, there are multiple reasons for why they occur. A drug homicide will be different from an intimate-partner homicide, which will be different from someone killing their child. One of the things we do know is that if we want to understand why these crimes occur, we have to get to the bottom of the events or crimes that lead to a homicide. And that will be different depending on each situation. Without understanding that, we can’t effectively try to prevent future occurrences. 

Q: Are there any circumstances that tend to lead to more homicides? 

A: Yes, situationally, there are things that increase the risk of a homicide taking place, and this is different from someone’s motive. A motive might be that a husband wants to kill his wife. But situationally, we know that crime facilitators such as alcohol, drugs and the availability of firearms increase the risk of a homicide taking place. If you have a firearm, you are more likely to use it. Of all the traditional types of weapons you can use, firearms are the most lethal. So, the availability of a firearm increases the odds of a homicide incident occurring. 

Q: Has there been enough research on firearm violence to fully understand the problem? 

A: No. There has not been a lot of research funding for the study of firearm violence, and this has been mostly for political reasons. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant that is funding our study is the largest NIH funding commitment in the past 20 years. It is meant to support research into understanding the knowledge gaps in firearm violence research, informing a research agenda, and identifying best practices in the reduction of firearm violence among children and youths. 

Q: Why is it important to do this kind of research? 

A: There is a lot of rhetoric around gun violence. But researchers have not been able to put together a background of objective research that can outline factors that increase incidents of gun violence in recent years. Research is important because you need to understand exactly what you’re tackling before you give a response.

For example, let’s say we want to decrease homicides, and one hypothetical policy proposal might be to focus on open-air drug markets. Well, not all homicides are caused by open-air drug markets, so you may be putting money into an aspect of the problem that may not benefit the entire scope of the problem. That path wouldn’t help mothers who are mentally ill who kill their infant children, or victims of intimate-partner homicides.

To put it in everyday terms, let’s say your car does not start tomorrow. You just don’t blindly put a new battery in. You take it to the auto shop to be checked in order to identify why the car did not start, and then fix the specific problem. That is what we are trying to do with this line of research. 

Leslie Minton
Media Relations and Strategic Communications
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lminton1@asu.edu
480-727-4294

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