Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention and Policy

Summary: Conclusions and Recommendations

Gun violence is an urgent, complex, and multifaceted problem. It requires evidence-based, multifaceted solutions. Psychology can make important contributions to policies that prevent gun violence. Toward this end, in February 2013 the American Psychological Association commissioned this report by a panel of experts to convey research-based conclusions and recommendations (and to identify gaps in such knowledge) on how to reduce the incidence of gun violence — whether by homicide, suicide, or mass shootings — nationwide.

Following are chapter-by-chapter highlights and short summaries of conclusions and recommendations of the report’s authors. More information and supporting citations can be found within the chapters themselves.

Antecedents to Gun Violence: Developmental Issues

A complex and variable constellation of risk and protective factors makes persons more or less likely to use a firearm against themselves or others. For this reason, there is no single profile that can reliably predict who will use a gun in a violent act. Instead, gun violence is associated with a confluence of individual, family, school, peer, community, and sociocultural risk factors that interact over time during childhood and adolescence. Although many youths desist in aggressive and antisocial behavior during late adolescence, others are disproportionately at risk for becoming involved in or otherwise affected by gun violence. The most consistent and powerful predictor of future violence is a history of violent behavior. Prevention efforts guided by research on developmental risk can reduce the likelihood that firearms will be introduced into community and family conflicts or criminal activity. Prevention efforts can also reduce the relatively rare occasions when severe mental illness contributes to homicide or the more common circumstances when depression or other mental illness contributes to suicide. Reducing incidents of gun violence arising from criminal misconduct or suicide is an important goal of broader primary and secondary prevention and intervention strategies. Such strategies must also attend to redirecting developmental antecedents and larger sociocultural processes that contribute to gun violence and gun-related deaths.

Antecedents to Gun Violence: Gender and Culture

Any account of gun violence in the United States must be able to explain both why males are perpetrators of the vast majority of gun violence and why the vast majority of males never perpetrate gun violence. Preliminary evidence suggests that changing perceptions among males of social norms about behaviors and characteristics associated with masculinity may reduce the prevalence of intimate partner and sexual violence. Such interventions need to be further tested for their potential to reduce gun violence. The skills and knowledge of psychologists are needed to develop and evaluate programs and settings in schools, workplaces, prisons, neighborhoods, clinics, and other relevant contexts that aim to change gendered expectations for males that emphasize self-sufficiency, toughness, and violence, including gun violence.

What Works: Gun Violence Prediction and Prevention at the Individual Level

Although it is important to recognize that most people suffering from a mental illness are not dangerous, for those persons at risk for violence due to mental illness, suicidal thoughts, or feelings of desperation, mental health treatment can often prevent gun violence. Policies and programs that identify and provide treatment for all persons suffering from a mental illness should be a national priority. Urgent attention must be paid to the current level of access to mental health services in the United States; such access is woefully insufficient. Additionally, it should be noted that behavioral threat assessment is becoming a standard of care for preventing violence in schools, colleges, and the workplace and against government and other public officials. Threat assessment teams gather and analyze information to assess if a person poses a threat of violence or self-harm, and if so, take steps to intervene.

What Works: Gun Violence Prevention at the Community Level

Prevention of violence occurs along a continuum that begins in early childhood with programs to help parents raise emotionally healthy children and ends with efforts to identify and intervene with troubled individuals who are threatening violence. The mental health community must take the lead in advocating for community-based collaborative problem-solving models to address the prevention of gun violence. Such models should blend prevention strategies in an effort to overcome the tendency within many community service systems to operate in silos. There has been some success with community-based programs involving police training in crisis intervention and with community members trained in mental health first aid. These programs need further piloting and study so they can be expanded to additional communities as appropriate. In addition, public health messaging campaigns on safe gun storage are needed. The practice of keeping all firearms appropriately stored and locked must become the only socially acceptable norm.

What Works: Policies to Reduce Gun Violence

The use of a gun greatly increases the odds that violence will lead to a fatality: This problem calls for urgent action. Firearm prohibitions for high-risk groups — domestic violence offenders, persons convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes, and individuals with mental illness who have been adjudicated as being a threat to themselves or to others — have been shown to reduce violence. The licensing of handgun purchasers, background check requirements for all gun sales, and close oversight of retail gun sellers can reduce the diversion of guns to criminals. Reducing the incidence of gun violence will require interventions through multiple systems, including legal, public health, public safety, community, and health. Increasing the availability of data and funding will help inform and evaluate policies designed to reduce gun violence.