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Using Data to Change Gun Policy

The Joyce Foundation is finding success with gun violence prevention through policy efforts, using research that sheds light on causes and trends.

Preventing Gun Violence: In-Depth Series

This special series of interviews explores the issue of gun violence in the United States, and highlights some of the most innovative entrepreneurs and cross-sector initiatives tackling the problem.

For the concluding post in this series, we sat down with The Joyce Foundation, which has been tackling the issue of gun violence for more than two decades. Its goal is to reduce deaths and injuries from gun violence through effective public policies that can impact easy access to and the growing lethality of firearms available on the civilian market. The Joyce Foundation prioritizes evidence-based approaches, and has funded research that firmly establishes the correlation between gun availability and rates of gun death and injury.

In the 1990s, the foundation—along with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, Irene Diamond Fund, MacArthur Foundation, Packard Foundation, and Open Society Foundation—set out to build a comprehensive data set on all violent deaths across the country. Originally housed at Harvard University, the resulting National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) now includes data from 18 states and has been a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention project since 2002. The omnibus appropriations bill just passed by Congress includes a significant increase in funding for NVDRS—from $3.1 million currently to $11.2 million—and the Joyce Foundation has supported education and advocacy efforts by public health groups to raise awareness about the NVDRS program with the goal of nationwide expansion.

The NVDRS research has been particularly useful in understanding firearm suicides, which account for more than 60 percent of all gun deaths each year. Yet, suicide is often left out of the conversation. The data shows that people often commit suicide impulsively and that limiting access to firearms can greatly reduce the rate of suicide. (Using this kind of data and predictive analysis is an area that the SmartTech Foundation hopes more companies and organizations will explore as a way of reducing and preventing gun violence.)

Recently, the Joyce Foundation has focused on giving voice to those most impacted by violence, similar to how Mike de la Rocha is engaging in open conversations with community leaders. The Joyce Foundation works primarily with people dealing with gun violence on a daily basis, including law enforcement, faith-based groups, medical professionals, and teachers.

“Law enforcement is on the front lines dealing with the problem of gun violence. Police and other members of the law enforcement community have strong feelings about what it takes to do a better job preventing gun crime,” says Nina Vinik, program director for the Joyce Foundation’s Gun Violence Prevention Program. “Law enforcement understands that it’s not enough to catch the bad guys and lock up the offenders. We have to do a better job preventing gun violence before it occurs.”

This shift toward a preventative approach and public health model is similar to Gary Slutkin’s approach at Cure Violence. Looking at the full scope of risk factors may help prevent future episodes. The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence worked with mental health experts to understand the risk factors of gun violence, and found that factors such as history of violence, and drug and alcohol abuse are much better predictors of future violence than mental illness alone. In light of this research, much of the Joyce Foundation’s prevention work has focused on improving the background check system to keep dangerous persons from accessing firearms.

“When someone buys a firearm from a licensed gun seller, under federal law they’re required to submit to a background check. And that’s really the best way that we have of making sure that people who are convicted felons, domestic abusers, or mentally ill can’t access firearms,” Vinik says. “The problem is that a background check only applies in roughly 60 percent of firearm transfers.”

The Joyce Foundation has seen progress in policy changes at local and state levels. CeaseFire PA, with support from the Foundation, has successfully engaged the citizens of Pennsylvania and built coalitions of local mayors, police chiefs, and state leaders to improve submission of state records to the federal background check database.

“In Pennsylvania, based on advocacy by CeaseFire PA, the governor’s office uploaded 600,000 mental health records into the system,” Vinik says. “These were records of people who are prohibited under current law from accessing firearms, but their records weren’t in the system; so if they tried to buy a gun in another state, they would be cleared.”

Additionally, Pennsylvania recently closed a loophole in its concealed weapons law that allowed a resident ineligible to carry a concealed weapon under Pennsylvania law to get a permit from a state with weaker criteria.

Local efforts are another important component of reducing gun violence. After Wisconsin became the 49th state to permit concealed weapons, the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE) worked with local residents to limit concealed weapons at government buildings and on government property in more than 100 communities. Mayor Nutter’s Cities United and Mayors Against Illegal Guns (a group supported by the Joyce Foundation) also recognize the value of local action to improve community safety.

One of the biggest challenges—and opportunities—for those working to prevent gun violence is getting the public to speak up. “If you look at public polling, you’ll see that there is overwhelming public support for the kind of policies I’ve been talking about,” says Vinik. “For example, poll after poll has found that the vast majority of Americans—80 and 90 percent—support stronger gun laws and comprehensive background checks. Even a majority of gun owners support these policies.”

However, the minority is extremely vocal in their opposition. Making it so that public debate reflects public opinion is an opportunity to expand the conversation around these issues. Sandy Hook Promise is also looking at ways to expand the conversation from engaging parents to developing safety solutions in much the same way as car safety regulations evolved.

“An important trend to think about is that household gun ownership has been steadily declining in this country over the past 30 years. If you look at data from the National Opinion Research Center, household gun ownership peaked at more than 50 percent of households owning one of more firearms in the 1970s. Today, it’s only about a third of households,” Vinik says.

Advances on other public health issues such as cigarette smoking and automobile safety have required decades-long efforts. We are just beginning to see significant advances on gun violence prevention, particularly at the state and local levels. As each person profiled in the series has learned from their efforts: This is not a sprint; reducing gun violence is a marathon, and it will take a team effort.

It will also take resources. The Joyce Foundation is proud to collaborate with other funders committed to gun violence prevention through the Fund for a Safer Future, a donor collaborative launched in 2011. Vinik adds, “Philanthropy has an important role to play in supporting the groups working on the front lines to make our communities safer. We hope more foundations and philanthropists will join us.”

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