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“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

We need better data on police shootings (Volume 10, Issue 9)

Since Michael Brown’s death in 2014, fatal police shootings, and in particular fatal police shootings of both armed and unarmed Black men, have resurfaced as a critical issue in the national conversation on policing and gun violence. The discourse includes questions of race, prejudice, gun rights, public safety, and surveillance; what it does not include are good data. Because there is no reliable national data system to track these deaths, there is a relative dearth of research on their epidemiology. The authors of a recent article instead turn overseas to The Guardian’s The Counted database of fatal police shootings to analyze the relationship between state-level firearm legislation and fatal police shootings.


The authors compare the number of firearm-related laws in each state to annualized rates of fatal police shootings. Beyond their primary analysis, the authors also investigate the influence of different types of laws, state-level factors such as gun ownership rates, and sociodemographic characteristics of each state.

They find that the average annualized rate of fatal police shootings per 1,000,000 people was 3.53, with a ten-fold range between states: 1.03 (Rhode Island) to 10.73 (New Mexico). Ninety-six percent of victims were male, 53% armed with a firearm, and 10% completely unarmed at the time of shooting. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups comprised over a third of victims.

The authors find a significant association between overall number of firearm laws and reduced rates of fatal police shootings, but on categorical analysis find that only laws about child and consumer safety and gun trafficking were associated with lower rates of fatal police shooting. The authors speculate that police in environments with less-regulated firearm ownership may be primed to respond with deadly force.

These results are consistent with previous studies, but these broad, state-level associations ultimately fail to show a causative mechanism. The main thrust of their argument, indeed, is the paucity of available data. Without better data on fatal police shootings, it is impossible to know the value of publicly called-for body cameras or officer training. The national zeitgeist demands solutions; the public and policy makers require data.

This Policy Prescriptions® review is written by Hannah Abrams. She is a medical student at Baylor College of Medicine.


OBJECTIVES: To examine whether stricter firearm legislation is associated with rates of fatal police shootings.

METHODS: We used a cross-sectional, state-level design to evaluate the effect of state-level firearm legislation on rates of fatal police shootings from January 1, 2015, through October 31, 2016. We measured state-level variation in firearm laws with legislative scorecards from the Brady Center, and for fatal police shootings we used The Counted, an online database maintained by The Guardian.

RESULTS: State-level firearm legislation was significantly associated with lower rates of fatal police shootings (incidence rate ratio?=?0.961; 95% confidence interval?=?0.939, 0.984). When we controlled for sociodemographic factors, states in the top quartile of legislative strength had a 51% lower incidence rate than did states in the lowest quartile. Laws aimed at strengthening background checks, promoting safe storage, and reducing gun trafficking were associated with fewer fatal police shootings.

CONCLUSIONS: Legislative restrictions on firearms are associated with reductions in fatal police shootings. Public Health Implications. Although further research is necessary to determine causality and potential mechanisms, firearm legislation is a potential policy solution for reducing fatal police shootings in the United States.

PMID: 28520488

Kivisto, AJ, et al. AJPH. 2017; 107 (7): 1068-1075.

Hannah Abrams
About Hannah Abrams

Hannah Abrams is a second year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine. Follow her on Twitter @HannahRAbrams. Contact: Twitter | More Posts