Campus & Community

In the crosshairs

4 min read

After the gun study

The acerbic e-mails began a few days after the School of Public Health’s (SPH) David Hemenway published “Firearm Availability and Female Homicide Victimization Rates among 25 Populous High Income Countries” in the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association (JAMWA) last month. The paper caught the attention of a small group of people, many of whom peppered Hemenway with sometimes unsigned and often scathing e-mails.

“Way to go genius,” wrote one person, who did not identify him- or herself beyond initials, “Learn to read what you read, instead of reading what you want to read, and you’ll realize you’re an idiot.”

The JAMWA experience reveals a side of scientific publishing not often spoken about – one where a researcher is personally targeted because of a study’s results.

Hemenway was lead author of the JAMWA study, which found that Americans make up 70 percent of all women murdered in industrialized nations. Furthermore, the study said that U.S. women are 11 times more likely to die from a firearm injury than women in other wealthy countries. In a press release that accompanied the study’s publication, Hemenway pointed out that a cross-sectional study such as his cannot prove causation. Nevertheless, the study results are consistent with others that indicate a gun is an important risk factor for female homicide.

“It’s hard to believe that no one had looked at this before,” said Hemenway. “Seventy percent is an astounding figure.”

News of the JAMWA study triggered two dozen e-mails to Hemenway.

“People get very emotional about gun-related issues,” he said. “They end up getting angry at the messenger.”

He added, “What’s strange is that none of the people seemed concerned with what the study is saying – that American women are at an exceptionally high risk of death. Nobody said, ‘Gee, this is terrible’ or ‘What should be done?’”

Hemenway said the e-mails would concern him more if they were from scientists or professionals offering legitimate criticisms. He did respond to two of the 24 e-mails because they raised what Hemenway considered thoughtful questions.

Most of the e-mails, Hemenway believes, were from people who didn’t bother to actually read his study before writing. The writers, instead of citing his paper, generally referred to a column about the study that appeared on

Hemenway said he is not “anti-gun.”

“I don’t have a big interest in guns one way or the other,” he said. “Nor do I believe that either banning guns or promoting increased gun ownership are good policies. I am interested in injury prevention, and as far as fatal and very serious injuries in this country are concerned, guns play an important role in the overall picture.”

Hemenway began researching injury control in the 1970s, beginning with fire safety issues. He has investigated motor vehicle safety, falls and fractures, child abuse, and suicide. He is director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center (HICRC) and co-director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center.

Gun-related studies have interested him over the past few years because of a dearth of knowledge in the field.

“There hasn’t been enough good research about guns because there is not enough funding or good data out there,” said Hemenway.

Hemenway and his colleagues have strived to fill in the data gaps. Since 1998, they have worked on more than two dozen articles about gun-related issues, including papers about guns on college campuses and public opinion about firearms. Hemenway has finished a draft of a book tentatively titled “Private Guns, Public Health.”

Hemenway finds gun-related research exciting because each finding can break new ground in an under-researched field. Even the controversies provide research material.

“The subject matter is so contentious, and you have people on both sides saying things with no evidence to support them,” said Hemenway. “Listening to all the claims provides many research ideas.”

And plenty of e-mails.