In the early 1990s, Dr. Frederick Rivara co-authored a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine about the association between the presence of guns in a household and the likelihood of homicide or suicide to the people living there. The research was funded by the Centers for Disease Control, and a few years' reaction to the study in Congress resulted in federal funding for gun studies stopped.
“Since 1986 Congress has refused to give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s prevention agency, any more funds to do firearms research,” said Rivara.
Rivara is not only a medical doctor but holds a Master’s in Public Health from the University of Washington. He is the founding director of the Harborview Injury and Research Center and has worked for 30 years in trying to control injuries to children. He views guns as a public health issue. For two decades those fighting federal funding for gun research have argued that it’s the people behind the guns who are doing the killing, not the guns themselves.
Now the national debate over gun control is restarting with the Sunday shooting in Las Vegas, which is now the largest American mass shooting in modern times.
Rivara is also associated with the Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington. His other injury prevention work includes studies of bike helmets, alcohol use, in addition to firearms.
But if you ask his thoughts in the wake of Las Vegas, you get a surprising answer.
“I think we need to step back a little bit from what happened recently in Nevada,” says Rivara. “We need to realize there are 36 thousand people who die each year in the United States from guns. That’s 100 per cay. Day in, and day out. We also need to realize that two-thirds of those deaths are suicides. They’re not assaults; they’re suicides.”
In Washington state, Rivara says that is 80 percent.
When asked the increased frequency of mass shootings and the use of semi-automatic handguns and rifles, Rivara says more research needs to be done in the United States. He does point to Australia, where in 1996 sales of semi-automatic rifles, along with pump-action shotguns and some other weapons, were stopped and many of the weapons in circulation were turned over to the government in a buyback campaign. He says the number of mass shootings in Australia dropped dramatically with those changes along with the overall rate of firearm deaths.
Rivara’s research published in 1993 found that guns in the house increased the chances of a homicide three-fold and suicide, especially among teens, up to 10 fold. Over time pro-gun groups have dismissed it as agenda-based research. Rivara points out the thorough vetting by the scientific community and its publication in the nation’s most prestigious medical journal.
Both sides to seem to agree on one thing: that keeping any weapon out of the hands of the mentally ill is a good idea. But there Rivara is not hopeful.
“Mental health care in the country is terrible. It’s tragic,” said Rivera, “particularly for our youth. Focus on the access to the means to harm themselves, and that’s firearms.”
As for Las Vegas changing the debate, Rivara is not hopeful.