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Stanford’s David Studdert and Yifan Zhang

Stanford gun violence research highlighted in national dialogue

A group of researchers are trying to answer the question: Are you more or less likely to die if you own a firearm? Their work was recently featured in the Washington Post.

As millions marched against gun violence across the country on Saturday, research from Stanford experts on the impact of gun ownership on public health was also in the spotlight.

The Washington Post published an in-depth story about how the work of gun researchers is finally getting attention -- an unfortunate consequence of the recent mass shootings in the United States.

As it highlighted, David Studdert, ScD, a professor of medicine and law; and Yifan Zhang, a biostatistics and data analyst with Stanford Health Policy, along with seasoned gun researcher Garen Wintemute, MD, of UC Davis's Violence Prevention Research Program, are trying to answer the question: Are you more or less likely to die if you own a firearm?

From the piece:

Studdert's group is using a data set unique to California because of the state's strict gun laws. Every time a gun is sold in California, a background check logs the purchase and purchaser with California authorities, who also have been unique in their willingness to share such politically fraught data with academic researchers.

Using a sample of 25 million people (taken from California's voter registration records), Studdert's team plans to identify handgun owners with the firearm sales records, then compare that against state death records.

The resulting data in theory will help them determine the relationship -- whether good or bad -- between gun ownership and death.

They call the project LongSHOT, a nod to the project's scale and ambition.

The article also describes how academic researchers who were studying the impact of gun violence on public health were dealt a huge financial and political blow in 1996, when the so-called Dickey Amendment was passed by Congress under pressure from gun lobbyists. The law forbids the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund research that might be seen as advocating for gun control. This choked off federal grant money and essential data-gathering on gun violence.

But tucked into the government spending bill in Congress last week was language that indicates the CDC now has the authority to conduct research on the causes and effects of gun violence. Though gun researchers are skeptical that the change in tone will lead to any significant support or funding, some believe that it's a start. The $1.3 trillion government funding measure also includes efforts to improve state compliance with the national background check system, as well as funding for school counseling and safety programs.

More from the piece:

Yifan Zhang was finishing her PhD in biostatistics at Harvard five years ago when news broke of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

As a graduate student from China, specializing in highly technical design of clinical drug trials, she had little connection to America's long-running debate over gun violence. But even now, she said, the anguished faces of those parents she saw on television remain seared in her memory.

So when she heard about a gun-violence research project at Stanford University that could use the statistical skills she had honed on pharmaceuticals, she jumped at the chance.

Zhang told me that she hopes the Stanford team can one day have an impact. "I think there are going to be some big decisions that the whole country has to make together, and I'm hoping that our research can help provide evidence and information for the decision making," she said.

I also spoke with Studdert, who told me, "The explosion of national interest in the problem of gun violence since the Parkland shooting has been remarkable. And it is inspiring to hear students' voices -- that is definitely a new twist in the politics around this issue."

"I think there is momentum for change," he continued, "but I remain pessimistic that we will see enactment of any substantial reforms at the federal level."

Photo of Yifan Zhang and David Studdert by Christie Hemm Klok for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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