Q&A with Dr. Shani Buggs of UC Davis’ Violence Prevention Research Program

Gun violence in the United States has become associated with polarized news cycles emerging from deadly mass shootings. But what causes those shootings? And what can we learn about gun violence from the nearly 99% of American firearm deaths that aren’t linked to mass shootings? Dr. Shani Buggs seeks to answer these questions and many others in her work with the Sacramento-based Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, shedding new light on the ways that race, trauma, economic insecurity and intimate partner tragedies intersect with guns—and how violence can be stopped at the community level and beyond.
Dr. Shani Buggs
Portrait by Josh Wool

In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released provisional data for 2021, which was pretty shocking: Gun deaths in America hit an all-time high of 48,832. That’s an 8% increase over 2020 and a 54% increase from a decade ago. What factors do you think influenced that rise?

The violence is driven by things like trauma not being addressed. It’s driven by a lack of a secure and stable environment for both victims and shooters. And it’s driven by firearm policy. It’s difficult to tease all of this apart because we don’t have data for how many guns are sold in our country. Congress explicitly prohibited federal law enforcement from helping track that. But we can get estimates based on background-check applications. We’ve seen an increase in interest in purchasing firearms. We’ve also seen states loosening their laws around firearm possession and carrying. So all of these things play a role when we have not, as a country, invested sufficiently in providing security and stability to families and individuals living in communities with high rates of violence.

And then there is no denying the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Everybody in our country has experienced higher levels of anxiety and mental distress. We’ve seen increases in suicides and intimate partner violence numbers. All of these things came together in this perfect storm to help elevate that percentage that you’re talking about over these last couple of years.

K Street in downtown Sacramento was the site of one of the country’s mass shootings this year. What kind of work is the Violence Prevention Research Program doing that could help prevent shootings like that in the future? 

We do research on policies and practices that impact causes and consequences of firearm violence—which is very broad. And that’s intentional. There are now over 30 of us in the center who are doing some form of research. We have dozens of different projects. We are doing research on things like firearm prohibition broadly: Are there categories of individuals who are at higher risk of firearm violence, and are there ways to identify those individuals upstream? [Research shows] that when individuals are violently injured, they are at higher risk for future victimization or perpetration of violence. We have a study happening to understand that better. With the K Street shooting, one of the individuals [charged in the] shooting had a conviction for domestic violence. So understanding all of those various factors are studies that we are currently conducting at our center.

How else is Sacramento—as a city and as a community—a lab for the study of violence prevention?

We have a hospital-based violence intervention program to assist individuals who are violently injured with both physical and psychological recovery, and to connect them to social support. We’ve been doing some research on what that social support network looks like—what people need, what they want, and trying to understand access to those resources. At the city level, the Office of Violence Prevention in Sacramento is responsible for allocating resources to community-based organizations for the purpose of reducing and preventing violence [such as gang violence]. Understanding the kind of funding and resources that are available for violence prevention versus enforcement would be really important to understand how city-level approaches to violence prevention can have some impact.

Suicides make up the majority of gun deaths in the United States. To what extent do you feel like firearm violence prevention is, by nature, largely suicide prevention?

The rates of suicide among younger populations are increasing, and there needs to be a greater understanding of the drivers of suicide for various populations—acute crisis, lack of hope, lack of being able to escape the darkness where one exists in that moment. The highest number of suicides in our country is among middle-aged and older white males. But we’ve seen a terribly concerning rise in the rates of suicides for children and adolescents of color over the last 20 years. So if we were to address the underlying factors associated with suicides, we would make a huge impact on firearm violence. What do people do when they are concerned about financial stability and security? How do we prevent access to firearms when people are experiencing those feelings? If we were to focus on those kinds of factors, we would have a major impact on suicide. Then you would see both suicides and homicides go down.

You just alluded to this, but according to the CDC, over the last 10 years, the firearm suicide rate more than doubled among Black, Latino and Asian teenagers. It increased by 58% for Native Americans and 40% for white teens. I mean, that’s an emergency.

It is an emergency. And particularly because historically the rates of suicides among communities of color were very low. So the gap is closing and we should be concerned about that. We need to be talking to the people who are most impacted by the violence—the families of suicide survivors, the families of survivors of community violence, people who were engaging in the violence themselves.

Can you elaborate a little bit more on the connection between the rise in gun violence and domestic violence? It seems like there is a really striking connection between those two phenomena in particular.

There really are more connections than the public realizes. According to a study [by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, published in 2021], over 60% of mass shootings involve an intimate partner or a member of a family, so there is a deep connection between these public instances of lethal violence and intimate partner violence. The drivers of the violence are the same. You have low economic opportunity, unstable or insecure housing opportunity, insecure employment opportunity, income inequality.

And what hasn’t been studied enough is the relationship between [gun violence] and perceived power and control. What we know about much of gun violence in America is that it occurs among youths and young adults who predominantly live in the disadvantaged, disinvested communities where there is lack of opportunity and lack of hope. If you are perceived to have little control or little power in your life, a firearm can make you feel powerful. This notion of dominance and power and control plays a role in the violence. Because all of these forms of violence—whether you’re talking about intimate partner homicides or community violence homicides or mass shootings—are predominantly carried out by men between the ages of 18 and 29. So there is a phenomenon that is under-studied there.

Why is it under-studied?

Well, a few reasons. Federal funding for gun violence has been abysmal until very recently. The Dickey Amendment [a budget provision passed by Congress in 1996 that all but prohibited the use of federal funds for gun control research] placed a chilling effect on the CDC to study gun violence specifically and advise on firearm policy. And that really set the field back enormously, because we’ve had hundreds of thousands of deaths by firearms since then, and we have not properly studied the problem to the same extent as it exists. There continued to be research over those 20-plus years, but there was no funding coming through the CDC directly for firearm violence.

Another reason is related to data and the ability to get accurate data on firearm violence—both homicides and nonfatal shootings. Law enforcement agencies are not required to track, for example, nonfatal gun violence. There are a number of police agencies across the country that choose to, but they’re not required to report that information to the federal government. And there are many, many more incidents of nonfatal firearm violence than fatal ones, right?

When we think about domestic violence, there’s even less tracking of the circumstances around domestic violence, and there’s no standardized way across agencies to study that information. We have largely treated violence as a public safety issue and therefore an issue that needs to be solved by police and the criminal legal system, and there is increasing awareness of the major limitations of that perspective for a situation like domestic violence.

READ MORE: Armed with Knowledge – Violence Prevention Research Program founder Garen Wintemute

Where are you from originally, and what inspired you to pursue gun violence research?

I am from Birmingham, Alabama. After college, I spent a decade in corporate management. I decided to get my master’s in public health and moved to Baltimore to study at Johns Hopkins University. When I went to Baltimore, a couple of things happened. One, my friends and family were concerned about me going to Baltimore because they had heard Baltimore was very dangerous. You know, The Wire [the HBO crime series set in Baltimore] had been out already. Also, within a couple of weeks of me being at the master’s program, the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting happened.

And as much attention as that shooting received and deserved [to receive], I was shocked by how little attention shootings in Baltimore were getting in the news. There was a cognitive dissonance happening. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health happened to be, at the time, the only academic institution in the country that had a center devoted to gun policy and research. All this to say, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I decided that I wanted to study gun violence and have an impact on gun violence through a public health lens. So I got a degree in public health and policy at Hopkins with a focus on firearm violence prevention.

How and when did you wind up in the Sacramento region?

In 2016, California became the first state in the country to pass legislation to use public dollars to fund a firearm violence research center. And I was fortunate to be the inaugural postdoctoral fellow as part of that new center. That brought me here to UC Davis.

I feel like we’re all just one or two degrees removed from gun violence in our own lives. Has it ever played a role in your life or your family’s life?

It has. When I was in high school, I lost a couple of schoolmates to firearm suicide. I also had friends lose family members to firearm homicide, and I lost a family member to gun violence. And over the course of my life, I have had very close friends and distant cousins who have been impacted by firearm violence. I think you’re absolutely right that we are all just one or two degrees removed, and part of addressing this problem is really to put that front and center in the conversation around gun violence. We don’t talk about that enough—the trauma, the despair, the distress that comes from knowing someone who died by firearm suicide or firearm homicide, and all of the people who were hurt but did not die from firearm suicide. We need to put that front and center and have real, honest conversations around that impact.

In April, you visited the White House to attend President Biden’s announcement of a new rule regulating the manufacturing and sale of ghost guns, untraceable firearms that can be assembled at home. It’s worth noting that this is an administrative rule, and not an actual law passed by Congress. In what ways does that distinction matter in the context of preventing violence? And did your research play a role in developing this rule?

My research did not, although research in our center has played a role in influencing the national conversation around ghost guns. Our center’s director, Garen Wintemute, has written about these untraceable, do-it-yourself guns, and he is [one of the experts] advising the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] on ghost guns. The center is also working with California law enforcement [to analyze data] on recovered ghost guns in California.

The distinction [between an administrative rule and a law] is an important one, because it allows for loopholes to be exploited. There has been recent reporting about that very fact—that manufacturers of the parts are exploiting opportunities to continue the sale of blueprints for the guns and parts for the guns, and changing the way serial numbers are encoded on different pieces of the parts. So [this new rule] is an important start—it raises the public awareness around ghost guns and does take some action—but ultimately, we need Congress to act. We need Congress to recognize the harm that comes from access to lethal weapons and clamp down on manufacturers and sellers who want to profit from the selling of those lethal weapons—particularly ghost guns. It should be concerning to everyone that lethal weapons can be manufactured at home and totally untraceable in our country.

[Still], action in any direction is important to note and to celebrate. I mean, I was at the White House. There was an announcement, you know? People were there to celebrate. I think the celebration was recognizing that movement on this issue is critical. It’s important to put manufacturers and sellers on notice. It’s important to draw attention to this issue.

Have there been other positive developments in Washington?

There is federal investment in community violence intervention, which before this administration had never happened at the federal level. To have devoted federal dollars go toward community violence intervention and prevention is a huge step in the right direction, because it’s an acknowledgement that we need to be approaching violence differently from the way that we have been doing it in the past.

Now the question is, how do we continue to have the federal government—and all forms of government—make the same kind of investment? Because we did not arrive here overnight. We are not going to fix it overnight. 

This interview has been edited for length, flow and clarity.

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