A year into my first study about the firearm ecosystem

New doors have opened and many challenges are ahead

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Perhaps the clock moves faster during periods of challenge and adversity. It is already one year since we published our paper in Nature Human Behaviour entitled Media coverage and firearm acquisition in the aftermath of a mass shooting. It feels like yesterday that I was compulsively checking the online system to see if the paper made it to the review stage and, later, if reviewers had provided their input during the countless rounds of review.

Personally and professionally, we will all remember this year as the year of the pandemic, with its fears and challenges that profoundly changed how we live our lives, work, and interact with friends and colleagues. If life is a roller coaster, the past several months have been like an endless tour on Brooklyn’s Cyclone, the slightly rickety, slightly terrifying, always jarring Coney Island icon. I, for one, have experienced the immense joy of holding for the first time my daughter in my arms and the sorrow of discovering that someone close to me had been diagnosed with a serious illness. Professionally, I have taken on new challenges and research directions, which have been largely fueled by this very article in Nature Human Behaviour.

Right after the publication of the article, we submitted a successful research proposal to the National Science Foundation’s LEAP HI program (Leading Engineering for America’s Prosperity, Health, and Infrastructure) entitled LEAP-HI: Understanding and Engineering the Ecosystem of Firearms: Prevalence, Safety, and Firearm-Related Harms. Leveraging and expanding on the methodological tools established in our original paper, we put together a comprehensive effort targeting what we had earlier called the “firearm ecosystem.” The ambitious goal of this $2 million project is to examine causal relationships between potentially contributing factors, such as firearm prevalence, state legislation, media exposure, and people’s opinion on firearm-related harms, at the level of individuals, states, and the whole nation.

This four-year endeavor brings together the team of the Nature Human Behaviour paper: James Macinko, a professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of California Los Angeles; Rifat Sipahi, a professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University; and Shinnosuke Nakayama, a data research scientist at the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University. It includes incredible collaborators with complementary expertise in human behavior, mathematics, and communications: Oded Nov, a professor of Technology Management and Innovation at NYU Tandon; Igor Belykh, a professor of Mathematics and Statistics at Georgia State University; and Maria Grillo, a project associate in the Institute for Invention, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship at NYU (who also happens to be my wife).

I suspect that a few of you reading this piece will mull this question: did having the paper published (and featured as the issue cover) in Nature Human Behaviour help secure the grant? While that’s a question best answered by the very many reviewers and program officers who evaluated our project, I would surmise that it helped a lot for a large number of reasons. First, it gave credibility to the study in the eyes of the reviewers. Second, it showed the National Science Foundation our commitment to work tirelessly on this exciting project that is so important to our society. And third, it helped us properly formulate all the research questions underlying the project.   

This funding is not the only salubrious consequence of the article in Nature Human Behaviour. Expanding on the analysis presented therein, during my Sabbatical in Spain, I have worked with Manuel Ruiz Marín, a professor at the Technical University of Cartagena, and Roni Barak Ventura, a Ph.D. student at NYU Tandon, to address important extensions of our information-theoretic approach to perform state-level analysis; our results were recently published in Patterns in a paper entitled Self-protection versus fear of stricter firearm regulations: examining the drivers of firearm acquisitions in the aftermath of a mass shooting.

Witnessing the fervor of many young collaborators to work on this topic and of young audiences to learn about engineering principles applied to the firearm ecosystem, I have decided to embark on a new academic challenge at NYU Tandon. In the months to come, I will work on creating a doctoral concentration that will bring together engineering principles to the solution of complex societal challenges. I hope this endeavor will inspire students to pursue new research directions that could transform our society for the better.

[Image by Jorge Ruiz Lopez]

Maurizio Porfiri

Professor, New York University Tandon School of Engineering

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