Skip to main content

JHU gun policy faculty convene summit, issue recommendations

JHU policy experts say that the hard work begins now

Image credit: STEPHEN O'BYRNE

On Dec. 14, 20 first-grade children and six adults lost their lives at the hands of a troubled individual outfitted with a military-style assault rifle. Without pause, guns and gun laws entered the public conversation.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels contacted Daniel Webster at the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Gun Policy and Research. Johns Hopkins, the president felt, had something to say.

Out of tragedy, a seminal moment in time had arrived.

With the full support of President Daniels and Bloomberg School Dean Michael Klag, faculty at the Center for Gun Policy and Research immediately set out to organize a gun policy summit that would gather in Baltimore more than 20 of the leading global experts to present the latest research and thinking on gun violence in the United States, and to develop consensus recommendations to help inform policy.

To get out in front of the conversation, the organizers gave themselves a three-week deadline. And realizing the need for more than just talk, they elected to put together a book—to be published within two weeks of the summit by the Johns Hopkins University Press—that would compile all the findings and views presented at the conference. With the assistance of other colleagues at the Bloomberg School, a public opinion poll was crafted over the end-of-year holidays to ascertain Americans' views on 33 specific proposed gun policies aimed at reducing gun violence.

By many measures, the summit and associated efforts were a resounding success.

The event's two keynote speakers, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, both used the occasion to announce significant gun reform proposals. The summit received comprehensive media coverage in local, national, and international markets. The hashtag #jhugunpolicy trended internationally on Twitter for days. According to staff at the JHU Press, pre-orders of the book Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis have been "unusually high" for such a publication. A copy will be sent to every member of Congress.

A day after the summit, President Barack Obama announced sweeping gun control measures that mirrored many of the recommendations put forth by the JHU gun summit participants [see below].

For those at the Center for Gun Policy and Research, there was little time for back-patting and handshakes, however. Pro-gun lobbyists responded quickly and promised a fight. Some GOP members balked at President Obama's proposals, claiming them an attack on the constitutional right to bear arms. "Nothing the president is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook," said a statement by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "President Obama is targeting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens instead of seriously addressing the real underlying causes of such violence."

In other words, now comes the hard part, according to Stephen Teret, director of the Bloomberg School's Center for Law and the Public's Health and former director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research.

The audience had barely filed out of the Bloomberg School's Sommer Hall, the site of the summit, than Teret was on the phone with reporters and policymakers.

"I am busier than I've ever been in my professional life," Teret said days after the summit. "Not a day passes that people involved with gun policy are not getting in touch with me. It's both invigorating and exhausting. Since the shooting in Connecticut, we've all been working harder than I ever remember. This is our time."

Webster, Teret, and colleagues know what they're up against: an uphill battle to re-envision the nation's policies on guns. They've been here before.

However, public opinion on gun control appears to be shifting in recent weeks. The findings of the Bloomberg School's opinion poll on specific gun-control policies (published Jan. 28 in the New England Journal of Medicine)—such as universal background checks and a ban on magazines over 10 rounds—identified clear support for the majority of the proposals, with 20 policies strongly supported regardless of respondents' political affiliation and whether they own a gun.

Teret says that he and his colleagues are more optimistic than ever that comprehensive gun reform legislation can get passed. And they are willing to do whatever is asked to make it a reality.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, founded in 1995 by Teret, is dedicated to reducing gun-related injuries and deaths through the application of strong research methods and public health principles. Its faculty have pioneered innovative strategies for reducing gun violence, and have achieved a national reputation for high-quality, policy-relevant research.

The center's faculty examine the public health effects of guns in society and serve as an objective resource for policymakers, the media, advocacy groups, and the general public.

Guns kill, on average, 31,000 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, 19,000 Americans died from gun-related suicides, and almost as many Americans died from gunfire as from motor vehicle crashes. The U.S. homicide rate is seven times the average of other high-income countries.

Webster, Teret, and center co-director Jon Vernick have gained national reputations as experts in gun policy and gun violence prevention research.

A week before the summit, Webster and Teret met with Attorney General Eric Holder, who was acting as a member of the federal task force on gun violence, led by Vice President Joe Biden. The two were asked to give their expert opinions on personalized and childproof guns, weapons that could, for example, require the handprint of the owner to operate.

Since the summit, Center for Gun Policy and Research faculty have met in person or talked over the phone with other White House officials, Consumer Product Safety Commission staff, senators, congressmen, and governors.

"The general idea is that they have a policy that they need to fine-tune. They want to know if a certain policy is going to work based upon what we know," says Teret.

For example, one question often asked is, What should be considered when addressing gun ownership policy related to those with mental health and drug addiction issues? Teret says it's a fine line of weighing all the factors and trying to make everyone safer but not intruding on the privacy rights of people with mental health issues.

While the gun summit was successful, the event also placed JHU faculty directly into the debate—and the sometimes-ugly fray played out online. Some critics took to Twitter to debunk the research put forth by the summit participants, questioning the validity of the findings and downplaying the impact of stricter gun controls on citizens' safety.

Teret says he tries not to take it personally.

"It comes with the territory," he says. "People disagree. I've had death threats before. Some will just never be convinced there should be any new national policy about gun control."

Still, Teret says he's heartened by recent polls that show there are enough people who want something done to reduce the threat of gun violence.

"We can make some progress here. What matters will be the will of the people and politicians," he says.

Vernick says that in the coming weeks and months, JHU gun policy experts might be asked to testify before members of Congress to provide research and relevant information.

"We want to take the latest findings and put [them] in the hands of policymakers," he says. "In the case of violence prevention, we want to present the best available science."

Like his colleague Teret, Vernick admits that some of the items suggested by President Obama and others could be a tough sell, specifically pointing out the ban on military-style assault weapons.

"I think anytime you try to ban an entire category of firearms, that can be difficult. But we've found that a majority of gun owners are in favor of reasonable regulation on the future sale of assault weapons," he says. "I see reason for optimism. We hope to find common ground between gun owners and non–gun owners."

The gun summit, Webster says, was not the end game but a great start to real change.

He says that on the morning of the summit's opening day, he felt an eerie calm and confidence, realizing that everything was in place as it should be.

"I was just so excited. This is an opportunity that our researchers dream of. That you get to invite your closest colleagues, who you think are at the top of the game in your field, to come and talk about a critically important problem that the nation is facing right now and cares about," he says. "So many people made a great effort into making this happen for a reason, not just for an academic exercise but to actually use research to inform policy that hopefully will affect lives and save lives."

Now, he says, it's time to spread the facts.

Gun Policy Summit: Expert Recommendations

More than 20 of the world's leading gun policy experts have identified several research-based policies to reduce gun violence in the United States. The recommendations are the result of the summit on gun violence convened by Johns Hopkins on Jan. 14 and 15.

"The purpose of putting forth these recommendations is to provide a research-based framework for reducing the staggering toll of gun violence in America," says summit organizer Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Importantly, most recommended policies have broad public support and would not violate constitutional rights."

Collectively, the summit participants recommend the following:

Background checks

• Establish a universal background check system, which would apply to all persons purchasing a firearm (inheritance exception).

• Require all sales to be facilitated through a federally licensed gun dealer. This would have the effect of mandating the same record keeping for all firearm transfers.

• Increase the maximum amount of time for the FBI to complete a background check from three to 10 business days.

• Require that all firearm owners report the theft or loss of their firearm within 72 hours of becoming aware of its loss.

• Ensure that persons who have a license to carry a firearm be subjected to a background check when purchasing a firearm.

Expanded conditions prohibiting high-risk individuals from purchasing guns

• Persons convicted of a violent misdemeanor would be prohibited from firearm purchase for 15 years.

• Persons committing a violent crime as a juvenile would be prohibited from firearm purchase until age 30.

• Persons convicted of two or more crimes involving drugs or alcohol within a three-year period would be prohibited from firearm purchase for 10 years.

• Persons convicted of a single drug-trafficking offense would be prohibited from gun purchase.

• Persons determined by a judge to be a gang member would be prohibited from gun purchase.

• A minimum age of 21 should be required for handgun purchase or possession.

• Persons who have violated a restraining order issued because of the threat of violence (including permanent, temporary, and emergency) would be prohibited from purchasing firearms.

Mental health

• Federal restrictions of gun purchase for persons with serious mental illness should be focused on the dangerousness of the individual.

• Federal incentives for states to provide information about disqualifying mental health conditions to the National Instant Check System for gun buyers should be fully funded.

Trafficking and dealer licensing

• A permanent director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should be appointed and confirmed.

• ATF should be required to provide adequate resources to inspect and otherwise engage in oversight of federally licensed gun dealers.

• Restrictions imposed under the Firearm Owners Protections Act limiting ATF to one routine inspection of gun dealers per year should be repealed.

• Provisions of the Firearm Owners Protection Act raising the evidentiary standard for prosecuting dealers who make unlawful sales should be repealed.

• ATF should be granted authority to develop a range of sanctions for gun dealers who violate gun sales or other laws.

• The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, providing gun dealers and manufacturers protection from tort liability, should be repealed.

• Federal restrictions on access to firearms trace data, other than for ongoing criminal investigations, should be repealed.

• Federal law mandating reporting of multiple sales of handguns should be expanded to include long guns.

• Adequate penalties are needed for violations of the above provisions.

Personalized guns

• Congress should provide financial incentives to states to mandate childproof or personalized guns.

• The Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission should be granted authority to regulate the safety of firearms and ammunition as consumer products.

Assault weapons

• Ban the future sale of assault weapons, incorporating a more carefully crafted definition—compared with the 1994 ban—to reduce the risk that the law can be easily evaded.

High-capacity magazines

• Ban the future sale and possession of large-capacity (greater than 10 rounds) ammunition magazines.

Research funding

• The federal government should provide funds to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, and National Institute of Justice adequate for understanding the causes of and solutions to gun violence, commensurate with its impact on the public's health and safety.

• The surgeon general should produce a regular report on the state of the problem of gun violence in America and progress toward solutions.