The Right Questions With the Right People – Firearm Injury & Death Research in Missouri 

As a country we are overwhelmed with news about firearm injury and death.

As kindergarteners engage in armed intruder drills, community violence survivors tie stuffed animals to street poles as makeshift memorials. Articles about accidental shootings fill our newspapers but offer few solutions. Meanwhile, far from the headlines, the toll of firearm suicides quietly outnumbers any other form of gun death.

Given the gravity of the problem, you’d think that conducting extensive research around the issue would have become a top priority. But in 1996, a federal provision known as the Dickey Amendment was introduced in Congress, which prohibited the use of federal funds to “advocate or promote gun control." This led to a near-complete freeze on federal firearm-related research for more than 20 years. It wasn’t until 2018 that the rule was clarified enough to allow funding to restart.

“I think the average person would be surprised how little research has been done around firearms and their impact, particularly from the perspectives of firearm owners themselves,” said Megan Simmons, Senior Research Strategist at Missouri Foundation for Health.

In July 2020, in response to calls from Missouri stakeholders for data connected to firearm-related beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors within the state, MFH commissioned the Missouri Firearms Survey. After hearing from more than 1,000 Missouri adults, five reports examining different aspects of the data were created in partnership with the University of Michigan.

Key Findings From the Missouri Firearms Survey Reports

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An Introduction to the Missouri Firearms Survey 

-While about 37% of respondents personally owned a gun, 52% of respondents reported currently living in a home with one or more firearms present.

-The majority of people who live in a household with guns but do not personally own one are female, have not received formal firearms training, and live in a rural or suburban area.

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Formal Firearms Training in Missouri 

-Around 60% of firearm owners reported having received some sort of firearm training, while just under 17% of people living in a home with firearms had received training. The relative lack of training among people who may be around guns but not personally own them suggests a need for increased attention to prevent firearm injury and death.

-Firearm trainings received by participants typically included live shooting, but only 32% had included safe handling and only 28% had included information on safely storing firearms. 

Background Checks and Firearms in the Community 

-Only around 55% of firearm owners underwent a background check at the time of their last gun purchase. People who purchased from a gun store had the highest rates of completed background checks, while those who purchased through private sales had the lowest.

-About 1/3 of firearm owners reported having a concealed carry permit. This was more likely among firearm owners over the age of 30, Black respondents, those who live in suburban or rural areas, and those who own a firearm for protection.         

-Non-Hispanic, Black firearm owners were significantly less likely to support the carrying of guns in public places, overall. 

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Firearm Suicide Beliefs and Practices 

-Only 34% firearm owners agree that the presence of a gun in the home increases the risk of dying by suicide, despite much evidence linking their presence to suicide death risk.

-Having received firearm training that included a suicide prevention component was associated with lower rates of agreement that the presence of a gun in a home increases risk of death by suicide.

-The vast majority of firearm owners (80%) supported reducing gun access for household members who may be suicidal. Preferred steps to reduce access varied, including locking guns away, storing guns outside the home, and keeping guns on ones’ person at all times. 

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Firearm Perceptions and Storage Practices at Home

-Around 38% of firearm owners believe guns should be stored locked and unloaded with ammunition stored separately when not in use. However, only 43% of firearm owners who endorsed this belief stored their firearms this way. Although this may seem contrarian, it likely reflects how firearm owners think about what it means for a gun to be “in use.” Unlike guns used for discrete purposes, like hunting or sport shooting, firearms owned for protection may always be “in use” in order to be prepared to meet a threat.

-Firearm owners who own a gun for protection were more likely to report storing at least one firearm unlocked and loaded compared to those who primarily owned guns for other reasons.

The data underscore the critical need for a nuanced approach to firearm injury prevention, highlighting the necessity of crafting strategies that align with the unique needs and motivations of firearm owners. Given the diversity among firearm owners and the variety of reasons they own firearms, future research should focus on implementing community-engaged research practices. This involves partnering with diverse community members and organizations (e.g., gun store owners, community violence interrupters) to understand the safety priorities of firearm owners, develop a broad range of effective injury prevention strategies, identify credible messengers for implementing these strategies, and enhance existing harm reduction initiatives by incorporating elements such as suicide prevention into firearm training programs. Our findings demonstrate that both firearm owners and non-owners share a common objective: ensuring the safety of themselves and their loved ones. This shared objective calls for a united effort to explore and implement diverse strategies that effectively promote firearm safety.

Daniel Lee, Project Co-Lead, Missouri Firearms Survey Reports
Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, University of Michigan

“This sort of survey research fills in a gap that’s acknowledged by both us and our grantees,” explained Marcel Scaife, Strategist – Initiatives. “But we’re still missing the representation needed to figure out what matters most to those closest to the issue or what they see as potential solutions.”

One of the themes running through the reports is a call for greater nuance and connection. For example, could minor changes in the way a question is phrased greatly alter the answers that are given? Who are we asking these questions to? Beyond that, are we even asking the most important questions?

“We entered this work because there was a need for fundamental research, but moving forward, we shouldn’t be the ones spearheading this and asking all the questions,” said Simmons. “We need to be listening more to the people and communities most affected. What questions do they want answered? How can we use research to elevate community-driven solutions to firearm injury and death?”

As we dive deeper into our planning project, the data collected from the survey will help us make informed decisions, ensuring that solutions are tailored to our unique circumstances while keeping the objective in the forefront.  Overall, the Missouri Firearm Survey has had a positive impact on my thinking and ultimately on our small community by promoting transparency, understanding, and effective firearm regulation.

Cora Sanders
Faith Temple Complex

The Foundation’s evolution in its thinking is exemplified in projects with partners such as Hand in Hand Multicultural Center (HIHMC), an organization deeply embedded in its local community. HIHMC is working with University of Colorado and grassroots immigrant groups in Southwest Missouri to initiate conversations that examine, explore, and move toward a better understanding of firearm violence, along with the identification of potential next steps. These community conversations follow the creation of a report produced in collaboration with the Foundation, HIHMC, and University of Colorado that focused on firearm injury and death among immigrant groups in Springfield, Missouri.

Another example is the Foundation’s work with Fresh Start in Missouri’s Bootheel. With a focus on Black youth in the region, Fresh Start is collaborating with the St. Louis Regional Health Commission and local researchers to gain a deeper understanding of the root causes of firearm injury and death, build community trust through collaboration, and ultimately develop a strategic plan to address the problem. The effort includes convenings, one-on-interviews with those with lived experience, data analysis, learning sessions, and more.

As we were building our project plan, we realized the absence of local data on firearm ownership and therefore utilized data from the firearm survey to compute an approximation of gun ownership in Randolph County, which was further utilized in identifying and strategizing key areas of intervention in our service area. The survey findings corroborated results from the local community assessments we conducted, thus adding emphasis to our arguments for promoting firearm safety, safe storage, and Conversations for Suicide Safer Homes. To date, we are utilizing the survey findings to engage potential stakeholders and build strategies to engage parents of school-going kids to educate the population about suicide-safer homes.

Meenakshi Bhilwar
Caring Community Partnership

The Foundation continues to offer direct grant opportunities to support organizations working on this issue, but we’re also involved in building the field in other ways. We’ve collaborated with likeminded organizations to create the Missouri Collaborative on Firearm Research. Researchers and community partners are currently working together to rethink how firearm studies are performed in the state.

“The Missouri Firearms Survey gives us more questions than answers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Jessi LaRose, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Foundation. “We’ve heard from our collaborators and grantees that they really value this information, and we’re excited to be facilitating more research. Moving forward we’re evolving in how we partner in this work in the hope that it will be more relational and more responsive to the needs of communities affected by firearm injury and death. By working together like this, I truly think that change is possible.”