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ASU professors discuss gun safety that may appeal to broad spectrum of citizens

Hundreds of academics gather at research conference about harm from firearms

Side-by-side portraits of Jesenia Pizarro and Beth Huebner, professors at ASU's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Professor Jesenia Pizarro (left) and Professor Beth Huebner, ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Courtesy photos

November 20, 2023

Recent gun safety proposals — including requiring gun locks and community beautification efforts that can help quell violence — could possibly earn support from those on both sides of the firearms debate, according to two Arizona State University criminology and criminal justice professors.

Professors Jesenia Pizarro and Beth Huebner recently returned from the second annual conference of the Research Society for the Prevention of Firearm-Related Harms, held Nov. 1–3 in Chicago, where they were panelists at a workshop on how researchers can better collaborate with criminologists.

Huebner is the Watts Endowed Professor of Public Safety and director of the ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Pizarro, a full professor, is secretary of the society, a national organization of mostly academics in health fields who conduct research but do not engage in advocacy. As a criminologist, Pizarro said she is a rare exception among the society’s membership.

More than 700 mostly academics attended the conference to hear 333 presentations by 299 unique presenters representing 34 states and five countries. More than 18 research disciplines were represented in the presentations, including medicine, public health, anthropology, business, economics, criminology/criminal justice, sociology, social work and engineering. 

The society organized the conference with support from the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, the Columbia Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence (SURGE) and ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Here is a complete list of the conference’s sponsors.

Read on to learn Pizarro’s and Huebner’s insights from the event.

Editor's note: Answers may have been edited for length or clarity.

Question: Professor Pizarro, you are the national secretary of the Research Society for the Prevention of Firearm-Related Harms. Tell us about its history and goals, as well as some examples of its current research.

Pizarro: The society, and by extension the conference, is rooted in a journey of overcoming obstacles. In 1996, Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, which prohibited the use of federal funds to advocate or promote gun control, which discouraged the Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies from awarding research money targeted for firearm injury prevention.

In 2018, after multiple mass-shooting tragedies and increasing public demand, Congress clarified that the amendment does not prohibit federal funding of research on the causes of gun violence. Subsequently, the Firearm Injury Among Children and Teens Consortium (FACTS) was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. I was one of 25 scientists in the original consortium — and the only criminologist.

Our efforts flourished and led to the 2022 national conference, which was a collaboration between FACTS, the University of Michigan and the RAND Corporation. The society was born from that effort. The society’s goal is to sustain the annual conference, nurture researchers and contribute to evidence-based policies. It is poised to shape the future of firearm injury prevention by offering a robust platform for research, publications and global initiatives combating firearm-related harms.

Q: On Nov. 7, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in United States v. Rahimi, a Texas case about whether the government can restrict the Second Amendment right to bear arms of a person who is subject to domestic violence restraining orders. What might such a decision say about how our legal system treats firearm-related harm?

Pizarro: U.S. vs. RahimiAn amici curiae brief presented to the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Rahimi was signed by Pizarro and 110 other public health researchers and lawyers. View it at: focuses on whether the restriction of the Second Amendment rights of individuals under a domestic violence protection order is constitutional. Earlier this year, the fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it is not. ... The Supreme Court decision will shape the legal stance on the Second Amendment and will have crucial implications for public safety. 

Acknowledging that I am not a legal scholar or constitutional lawyer, in my opinion, if the Supreme Court sides with the appellate court, it will signal to the country that individual rights supersede public safety and health. If the Supreme Court does not side with the circuit judges and decides to keep the federal statute as is, it will signal that they are committed to a nuanced understanding of the role of firearms in societal harms in light of the constitutional framework.

Q: You are a criminologist in an organization primarily made up of researchers from health fields such as public health, medicine, epidemiology and so on. Why do you think a wider, multidisciplinary approach is needed to help policymakers on issues related to the harms caused by firearms?

Pizarro: Firearm harms is one of those problems that are just too large to be understood and solved by a single discipline. Single-discipline approaches, while offering ease and simplicity for the professionals utilizing them, are insufficient to address the complexity and scale of firearm harms. For example, employing only a criminal-justice-centered approach would not consider trauma-informed services to survivors and primary and tertiary prevention efforts that are so necessary. ... We need everyone at the table so that the problem can be targeted via multiple angles and considering the diverse factors that contribute to these harms. 

Q: Professor Huebner, ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice is one of the most highly ranked schools in the nation. What role can the school play in shaping the research agenda regarding firearms-related harms? What expertise can it bring?

Huebner: Effective interventions to reduce firearm harm require a nuanced understanding of individuals who perpetuate harm and victims of crime, as well as in-depth knowledge of crime data and the criminal justice and social services agencies that work in the community. The multidisciplinary nature of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, specifically, and that of ASU as a whole, makes the school well poised to lead in this field.

We have experts, like Professor Pizarro, who have centered their research program on the multifaceted nature of gun crime, which includes in-depth knowledge of victims of violence and the nationwide landscape of gun crime, particularly homicide trends. Professor William Terrill, who also attended the conference, works with police agencies in the Phoenix area and across the country to better understand police officer perceptions of firearm danger and ways to de-escalate violence among citizens and law enforcement.

Just as important, our faculty partners with other experts at ASU and elsewhere in the fields of public health, medicine, sociology and social work to develop interventions.

Q: Now that you’ve attended this conference, what impressions did you take with you? What opportunities do you see coming out of it for the society as an impartial voice?

Huebner: This was my first time attending the conference, and I found it to be one of the best convenings I have attended. What impressed me most was the diversity of individuals who attended. I was asked to participate in a mentoring session for early-career scholars, and I connected with some of the brightest minds in the field. I also appreciate that the group takes a public health approach and allows those who work on the front lines with victims to have a strong voice in policy change.

Individuals who work in academia often operate in silos, but it will take true collaboration to begin to address the public health emergency that is gun violence in the United States. 

Q: The Washington Post editorialized Nov. 3 that the society has made some novel suggestions for policy changes that, in part because they are new, might have a chance to be implemented. Do you agree?

Pizarro: Yes. A lot of the interventions discussed are already in place in some cities throughout the country. Take, for example, greening and beautification in communities. Cities like Flint, Michigan, and Philadelphia have implemented it, and there is documented success. In fact, The Watts College’s Design Studio for Community Solutions is currently funding a beautification effort in Maryvale (in Phoenix). I am currently working on that initiative with criminal justice (Associate) Professor Cody Telep, and we are excited about the possibilities in that community.

Huebner: Agreed. Interventions, like gun safety locks, are supported by science and are often less controversial than other programs. Yet, many gun owners don’t use them. It is important to have conferences like these to learn more about how to best communicate the science of gun safety to the broader community. Science is only beneficial if it can be translated into community action.