Press Releases

1999 Releases

Programs to Track Firearm Injuries Awarded Harvard Grants

For immediate release: October 25, 1999

Boston, MA--Maps of Atlanta's gun violence "hotspots" paper the walls of a room where the city's police department task force on reducing gun crime meets. The maps are produced by emergency room doctors and public health researchers from Emory University as part of the "Cops and Docs" project, one of a new brand of public health reporting systems that gathers data on gun-related injuries to better understand how to prevent future injuries.

This project and six others like it have been awarded grants by the National Firearm Injury Statistics System (NFISS) at the Harvard School of Public Health, it was announced today. Awards totaling $553,000 were made by the recently established program, which is part of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

"If you want to do something about the 30,000 to 35,000 firearm deaths we see in this country every year, you've got to start with good information," said David Hemenway, head of NFISS and a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Compared with motor vehicle crashes--for which we have an extremely detailed, useful data system at the federal level--the information available on gun injuries is abysmal."

NFISS was established earlier this year with grants from private foundations including the Open Society Institute, Irene Diamond Fund, Joyce Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and Annie E. Casey Foundation. The foundations stepped in at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)--the federal agency responsible for compiling statistics on disease and injury in the US--was bowing out of the business of tracking gun injuries. In the mid-1990s, CDC initiated a program to support states in developing new data systems for gun injuries. However, following a campaign led by gun owner lobby groups, support for the program was withdrawn in 1997.

"People may not realize that most states have no idea how many people were injured by guns in a given year, let alone what particular gun type was involved, where it came from, and what type of event led to the injury," Hemenway said. "This is the information we need to plan rational policies for preventing injuries."

The grantees awarded funding from NFISS will provide detailed information on gun injuries and deaths in their regions. They are the Allegheny County (Pa.) Health Department, Emory University of Atlanta, the University of Maryland's Violence Research Group, Maine Medical Center, the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and the University of Utah Intermountain Injury Control Research Center. In addition, the Firearm Injury Center of the Medical College of Wisconsin was funded to collaborate with the Harvard program in designing a national database for firearm fatalities and to provide expert assistance to a variety of states seeking to implement firearm fatality reporting systems.

"For the first time, law enforcement, public health and medical professionals in San Francisco are joining in an effort to address firearm violence in our community," said Mary Vassar, a nurse and researcher with the University of California at San Francisco's Injury Center. "With current efforts at the local and national level to promote safer gun designs and limit access to firearms, the data on victims and perpetrators will serve as the cornerstone for evaluating the impact of these measures."

Arthur Kellerman, MD, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Emory University and founder of Cops and Docs, pointed out: "We've been getting police and hospitals to cooperate on reporting gunshot wound cases in the Atlanta area for a couple of years now and have seen that local data lead to local action."

Grantees will gather data on gunshot wound victims who survived and were seen in hospital emergency departments or investigated by police, as well as those who died and were investigated by coroners or medical examiners. Information culled from police reports will include not only data on the relationship between the victim and offender and the type of incident that led to the shooting, but also information from the police crime laboratories' ballistics units on the type of weapons and ammunition involved in injuries.

Cities and states that have already instituted similar gun injury reporting systems have used the resulting data to evaluate prevention programs or to better understand changes in the gun injury problem over time. For example, researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin identified five specific gun makes that accounted for almost 50% of the fatalities in the Milwaukee area. But these makes comprised only 6% of the guns turned in during the Milwaukee "gun buy back" program. While the buy back may be beneficial in other ways, it did not appear to rid the streets of the weapons most commonly used in fatal shootings.

In New York City, which uses emergency room records to track injuries from attacks with all weapon types, researchers have documented that gun injuries follow a "contagion" model, with an increase in gun injuries spreading from one neighborhood to bordering neighborhoods. No such contagion effect was seen with knife attacks.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Director of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752
Email: rherman@hsph.harvard.edu