by Kim Krisberg

It seems we barely go a week now without news of another violent gun incident. Last week’s shooting rampage in Santa Monica, Calif., has resulted in the deaths of five people. And since the Newtown school shooting last December — in the span of less than six months — thousands of Americans have been killed by guns.

Just a couple days before the Santa Monica shooting, the Institute of Medicine (IoM) and National Research Council released a new report proposing priority research areas for better understanding gun-related violence, its causes, health effects and possible prevention strategies. The report’s authors said a public health research agenda addressing gun violence should address five high-priority areas: the characteristics of gun violence, risk and protective factors, prevention and other interventions, gun safety technology, and the influence of video games and other media. The research agenda was designed to produce results within three to five years.

The report was developed in response to a presidential executive order made in the wake of the Newtown school shootings and which charged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with identifying priority firearm-related violence research needs. President Obama also called on lawmakers to provide $10 million in funding to CDC to support gun violence prevention research. Of course, whether that funding becomes a reality is up to appropriators in Congress.

Conducting the research won’t be easy, as there is currently no central repository for data on gun ownership, distribution, acquisition and storage. CDC does oversee the National Violent Death Reporting System; however, that system only collects data from 18 states and the data is limited. Still, CDC estimates that violent deaths cost the country $60 billion in medical costs and lost productivity every year.

In a National Academies news release, Alan Leshner, chair of the IoM Committee on Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence, called gun violence a topic of “considerable public health importance.”

“Therefore, when developing its agenda, the committee took a public health approach that focused on gun violence problems associated with significant levels of injuries and fatalities,” Leshner said. “Although this research agenda is an initial, not all-encompassing set of questions, it could help better define the causes and prevention of firearm violence in order to develop effective policies to reduce its occurrence and impact in the U.S. Similar approaches to public health problems have produced successes in lowering tobacco use, accidental poisoning and motor vehicle fatalities.”

On the prevention and intervention front, the IoM report stresses that any successful intervention must involve cross-sector collaboration. Authors also note that the effectiveness of firearm-related violence prevention is mixed and not well understood. For example, policies that set time limits on alcohol sales in bars and clubs have been linked to reduced violence, while firearm safety education in schools has been shown less effective. The authors write:

The evidence generated by implementing a public health research agenda can enable the development of sound policies that support both the rights and the responsibilities central to gun ownership in the United States. In the absence of this research, policy makers will be left to debate controversial policies without scientifically sound evidence about their potential effects.

The U.S. is home to the highest rate of firearm-related deaths in the industrialized world, with suicides significantly outnumbering homicides in all age groups. In 2010, more than 105,000 people were injured or killed with a gun.

To read the full IoM report, click here.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.