Jon Vernick is a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. His research centers on the nexus between the law and public health, with a focus on firearms and other injury prevention. He has authored over 100 publications on topics such as the effect of gun permit law implementation on subsequent homicides, the impact of universal background check laws, and issues physicians must consider before discussing firearm safety with their patients.
Earlier this month, Vernick participated in a panel discussion on the intersection of gun violence and public health at Health Journalism 2019, the annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ). Afterward, we sat down with him to and ask about his tips for reporting on gun violence and gun policy. He offered six tips for journalists on the beat.
Tip #1: When reporting on the results of a public opinion poll about gun policy, focus on the specific phrasing of questions.
Vernick explained that responses to public opinion polls can vary widely depending on the phrasing of the question. For example, people are less likely to support the broad proposition of stricter gun policies, but more likely to support specific policies that have the effect of restricting access to guns, such as requiring background checks for all guns purchased.
Vernick added: “And that’s how policy works in this country; we don’t pass laws in general, we pass them specifically. And so I encourage journalists to not get too hung up on the broad trends, and instead focus on the relevant policies.”
Tip #2: Know how gun licensing and registration works in the U.S.
Vernick said he sometimes quizzes his students about ways of arriving at a national estimate for the number of guns in the U.S. “The students will raise their hands and say, ‘Well, can’t you just count the number of registrations?’” Vernick said. “And I have to explain to them that we don’t actually register guns in the United States. Federal law actually prohibits the federal government from registering guns, and then only a handful of states register guns.” (States with some form of a registration policy include Hawaii, California, New York, Maryland, Connecticut and New Jersey. The District of Columbia also has one.)
“So then a student will raise their hand and say ‘Well, how about just counting the licenses, because that would tell us how many gun owners there are at least?’ and I say, ‘Well we don’t even license [all] gun owners in the U.S.,’” he added. “Only about 10 states license gun owners, require a permit to purchase prior to obtaining a gun. So, there’s some basic stuff about the laws that I think is misunderstood in talking about this.”
Tip #3: Have some knowledge of guns, too – the different kinds, and how they work.
“This is the kind of thing that drives the gun owner group crazy, when they think that a reporter is writing about their issue with their guns and doesn’t understand the basic facts about how they work,” Vernick said. For example, Vernick stressed the difference between assault weapons, which are semi-automatic, and machine guns or fully automatic weapons.
We’ve covered this at Journalist’s Resource before, in our tip sheet titled “7 Things Journalists Should Know About Guns.” In the piece, Alex Yablon, who covers the business of guns and gun policy at The Trace, suggests asking law enforcement for the make and model of the gun used in a particular crime. “That’s going to be the easiest way to avoid tripping up on any of these things,” he said.
Tip #4: When covering gun violence, include details on how firearms were acquired.
“I always hope that when journalists are covering gun violence, whether it’s homicide or suicide, they will focus on how the gun was acquired — how did it fall into the hands of the high-risk person? — because that often will teach us what policy solutions are most appropriate,” Vernick said. “If it was the gun that was stored improperly in the home that the young person commits suicide with, or shoots a sibling or a playmate with, that teaches us one thing. If it was a gun that was bought in a state that has looser laws and was brought into a state with stronger laws, that teaches us something. So that could be hard. That’s often the day two story. But I think it’s really important.”
Tip #5: Avoid repeating the common misconception that the Dickey Amendment bans federally funded gun violence research.
There’s a common notion that there’s no recent academic research on gun violence because Congress banned the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding research projects that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The National Rifle Association (NRA) had lobbied for the ban, put in place by a provision authored by former Republican Congressman Jay Dickey of Arkansas. Adopted in 1996, it became known as the Dickey Amendment.
“Well it turns out that CDC wasn’t advocating for gun control. It was doing research on gun control, and it’s still allowed to do research on gun control,” Vernick explained. “But the fact that that language exists in the Dickey Amendment, and the fact that CDC had to defend itself before Congress and perceived this as a threat to its funding had a chilling effect. Now CDC still collects data about gun violence — very, very important data — and they still do some research on risk factors, but the amount of that research is not proportional to the magnitude of the problem.”
Tip #6: Avoid false equivalence.
If you’re reporting the facts of an evidence-based study, don’t try to “balance” the coverage with an opposing opinion. “I think journalists actually do a good job already of balancing — maybe too good a job, depending on your perspective,” Vernick said. “At least in my experience, journalists bend over backward to give organizations like the NRA or other gun-owning or opposition groups a chance to comment, sometimes on things that they don’t know very much about. And so when I will do a research study and the studies get coverage, I sometimes wonder if it’s necessary to have a non-researcher from the NRA or another group respond.”
Looking for research on gun violence prevention? Vernick recommended the work of the following scholars:
- Cassandra Crifasi, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
- Shani Buggs, a postdoctoral fellow with the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis
- Rose Kagawa, an assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the University of California, Davis
- Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis
Want more health reporting tips from the experts? We also have tip sheets on covering medical research and rural health.