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Research ties gun purchases to fear of firearm regulations, kicks off major research initiative

A team that includes UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor James Macinko  is moving forward in its study of why Americans buy firearms with the support of a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

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Date: 
Tuesday, August 18, 2020
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Surges in firearm acquisition after mass shootings is a well-documented phenomenon, but analytic research into the causes of this behavior — be it driven by a desire for self-protection, or a fear that access to firearms will be curtailed — is sparse.

A new study by a multi-university collaborative, led at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health by James Macinko, professor in the departments of Community Health Sciences and Health Policy and Management, is applying a data science methodology to create a model of the “firearms ecosystem” to identify how decisions to buy guns are affected by individual, social network, and state-level factors.

“This study was motivated by our initial findings that gun purchases were more closely tied to fear of firearm regulations, rather than concerns about protecting oneself or one’s family,” said Macinko, referring to work published in the journal Nature Human Behavior. “The next step is study of the causal relationships between firearm prevalence, state legislation, media exposure, and people’s opinion on firearm-related harms, and then linking these factors together to allow us to understand why we see different patterns of firearm-related harms across different cities and states.”

This comprehensive effort is backed by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The four-year project is under the NSF’s LEAP HI program (Leading Engineering for America’s Prosperity, Health and Infrastructure). The lead institution is New York University, with additional principal investigators at Georgia State and Northeastern.

In 2017, firearm-related deaths surpassed those due to motor vehicles, amounting to 39,773 deaths (12.2 per 100,000 population), or approximately 109 per day. Currently, 2019 firearm-related deaths account for 16.4% of all injury-related deaths in the U.S; among them, 96.5% are caused intentionally, including homicide (36.5%) and suicide (60.0%). For initial hospitalization alone, firearm-related harms cost on average $734 million per year, 40.8% of which is covered by public insurance. Each incident costs on average $29,900 for those with public insurance and $19,600 for those without insurance, burdening both government and citizens. The yearly total cost associated with firearm-related injuries is $174 billion, or $564 per American. 


The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, founded in 1961, is dedicated to enhancing the public's health by conducting innovative research, training future leaders and health professionals from diverse backgrounds, translating research into policy and practice, and serving our local communities and the communities of the nation and the world. The school has 690 students from 25 nations engaged in carrying out the vision of building healthy futures in greater Los Angeles, California, the nation and the world.