Each year, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) publishes the Wastebook, a project developed by former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in 2008. The document details the most ridiculous instances of federal government largesse, such as $1.7 million for a hologram comedy club in Jamestown, N.Y., $450,000 for National Science Foundation-funded research that determined dinosaurs couldn’t sing, and $230,000 for a National Institutes of Health-funded study showing that rhesus macaques are aroused by the color red. For the 2018 edition, Flake’s staff may want to examine a recent U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance-funded study that came to the shocking conclusion that larger caliber firearms are more deadly than relatively smaller caliber firearms.
The study is titled, The Association of Firearm Caliber With Likelihood of Death From Gunshot Injury in Criminal Assaults, was published on the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open, and authored by Anthony A. Braga and Philip J. Cook. For the project, the authors examined shootings that occurred in Boston between 2010 and 2014. Shootings were coded by the characteristics of the victim, the number of bullet wounds they suffered, the location of their wounds, and whether or not the wounds were fatal.
The researchers also ordered the cases into three groups by the caliber of firearm used in the shooting. Calibers .22, .25 and .32 were categorized as “small,” .38, .380 and 9mm as “medium,” and .357 magnum, .40 S&W, .44 magnum, 10mm, and 7.62x39mm as “large.”
The researcher found that the use of “medium” and “large” caliber guns resulted in more fatal wounds than the “small” caliber firearms. The authors wrote,
We were able to confirm the strong positive association between caliber and fatality rate and summarize the overall effect of larger calibers by simulating the effect on outcomes if all the guns had been small caliber. The result is a 39.5% reduction in the probability of death, implying an equal reduction in the gun homicide rate if the same shootings had occurred but with small-caliber weapons, rather than the actual mix of small, medium, and large calibers.
The general conclusion of this research has always been evident to anyone even remotely familiar with firearms or physics. The kinetic energy of a moving projectile is a function of its velocity and mass. A faster and heavier bullet carries more energy than a lighter and slower bullet, and can potentially impart more damage on the intended target.
This is obvious to the firearms community. Calibers and projectiles are marketed on the basis of their so-called “stopping power.” State Fish and Wildlife agencies require minimum caliber size and muzzle energy for taking certain game. Gun owners debate incessantly about the characteristics and effectiveness of different calibers. Enterprising gun enthusiasts construct elaborate tests to observe numerous calibers and projectiles under varying conditions and share the results online.
New calibers are developed with the express intent of being more effective. For instance, one of the “large” calibers noted by the researchers, 10mm Auto, was developed to ameliorate the perceived shortcomings of other cartridges. Following the 1986 FBI shootout with a pair of bank robbers in Miami, Fla., the Bureau determined that the 9mm cartridges used by their agents prolonged the deadly encounter. After extensive testing of the performance characteristics of numerous calibers and projectiles, the FBI adopted the 10mm for a short period.
Aside from obvious, the JAMA study is largely redundant. The FBI’s Ballistic Research Facility is considered the gold standard of ballistics research and conducts testing on the effectiveness of various calibers and projectiles. In 2015, their exhaustive research into the ballistic, medical, psychological, and tactical realities of the use of different calibers led to the Bureau bring 9mm back into standard service.
The broad findings of the JAMA study are what anyone would have predicted. More ridiculous is what the researchers and the anti-gun press have attempted to extrapolate from these “findings.” The authors contend that their research strikes a blow at a key gun rights argument, writing,
The opposing view holds that it is not the type of weapon that determines whether the victim lives or dies, but rather the intent of the assailant. This notion is captured by the old slogan “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” In this view, an assailant who is determined to kill will do what is necessary to accomplish that purpose, regardless of weapon type.
This was parroted by the Washington Post’s dubiously named Wonkblog, in a piece titled, “Actually, guns do kill people, according to a new study.” The author of the article contended,
The results undercut the idea that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” That catchy turn of phrase is often used by gun rights supporters to emphasize the human role in gun violence rather than the gun itself.
Just how does it do that? To gun rights supporters, the phrase “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” isn’t some sort of commentary on the effectiveness of the various means of committing murder. It is a concise way of expressing the simple fact that guns aren’t sentient, but rather are inanimate objects not imbued with ethical or moral properties. As such, guns cannot kill, but can be used by a person to kill. The expression is a rejection of a juvenile anti-gun anthropomorphism.
Moreover, there is ample evidence in the JAMA study that illustrates this gun rights argument. The authors noted,
Most attacks occurred in circumstances where gangs or drugs played an important role (according to BPD investigation results). Most were in outdoor locations in the disadvantaged Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester.
This is in line with Braga’s other research on the severe concentration of gun violence within certain communities. In a 2010 item for the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, titled, “The Concentration and Stability of Gun Violence at Micro Places in Boston, 1980–2008” Braga and his fellow researchers explained that,
Recent advances in criminological research suggest that there is significant clustering of crime in micro places, or ‘hot spots,’ that generate a disproportionate amount of criminal events in a city… We find that Boston gun violence is intensely concentrated at a small number of street segments and intersections rather than spread evenly across the urban landscape between 1980 and 2008.
Then-Yale Ph.D. candidate and current Assistant Professor at Rutgers University Michael Sierra-Arévalo outlined some of the research on this topic in a 2015 piece for the Hartford Courant, titled, “The Shooting Disease: Who You Know, Where You Live.” Sierra-Arévalo explained,
The concentration is not just in terms of place, but also people. It’s a tiny handful of the community that’s responsible for the lion’s share of the bloodshed. Turning to Boston again, in the period between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, more than half of all murders, more than three-quarters of youth homicides and 70 percent of all shootings were perpetrated by 1 percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 24.
The researcher went on to add, “As shown by Yale University sociologists in a recent study, 70 percent of all shootings in Chicago can be located in a social network composed of less than 6 percent of the city’s population.”
This research all underscores the importance of the human role in gun violence, rather than the mere presence of a certain type of firearm. Researching and addressing the complicated human factors that lead to gun violence may be challenging, but doing so has far more potential to serve the public than redundant findings obvious to any middle school physics student.