Social Media Data for Firearms Research: Promise and Perils

Published date01 November 2022
AuthorLisa Singh,Carole Roan Gresenz
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterOpportunities for Gun Violence Prevention
ANNALS, AAPSS, 704, November 2022 267
DOI: 10.1177/00027162231174320
Social Media
Data for
Promise and
1174320ANN The Annals of the American AcademySocial Media Data for Firearms Research
Firearms research has been hindered by a persistent
lack of high-quality, reliable, and timely data. Using
social media data in firearms research is, therefore,
appealing: these data are large in scale, continuously
provided, passively obtained, inexpensive in some
cases, and easily combined with data from traditional
sources. We consider how social media data have been
used in firearms research to date and how they can be
best used moving forward. Despite the many advan-
tages of using social media data, there are key analytical
and ethical considerations associated with their use,
including understanding the underlying population,
constructing valid and reliable measures from shared
content, the possibility of false data and misinformation
through fake accounts, and concerns having to do with
the privacy and consent of social media users.
Notwithstanding these drawbacks, we show that there
is a compelling case for the continued development of
these data for firearms research and suggest principles
for their responsible use in this context.
Keywords: social media; firearms; gun violence; rep-
resentativeness; measurement; demo-
graphic inference; reproducibility; false
Accurate, timely, reliable, and comprehen-
sive data on firearm behaviors such as
acquisition and storage, firearm markets, and
firearm-related outcomes are cornerstones of
empirical firearms research, yet they are sorely
Lisa Singh is a professor in the department of computer
science and the director of the Massive Data Institute at
Georgetown University. She has authored or coau-
thored over ninety peer-reviewed publications and
book chapters related to data-centric computing, for
example, data mining, data privacy, and data science.
Carole Roan Gresenz is an economist and professor at
Georgetown University in the McCourt School of
Public Policy and School of Health. She is a coauthor on
the first and second editions of The Science of Gun
Policy: A Critical Synthesis of Research Evidence on
the Effects of Gun Policies in the United States (RAND
Corporation 2018).
lacking. Persistent data limitations have hindered researchers’ ability to answer
fundamental research questions; indeed, Roman and Cook (2021) reflect that a
valid and reliable data foundation is nowhere more needed than in the realm of
firearms violence.
Roman (2020) profiles firearms data that have been discontinued, restricted
by policy, not collected, difficult to access, and/or delayed in availability. Firearm
ownership represents one example of data not systematically collected—despite
the fact that many gun policies (e.g., minimum age requirements for firearm
purchase, prohibitions on gun ownership for individuals with mental illness or a
history of domestic violence, extreme risk protection orders) are designed to
regulate who may legally own, purchase, or possess firearms (Smart et al. 2023).
The absence of longitudinal state-level estimates of firearm ownership has
affected researchers’ ability to assess the effects of these gun policies. New
efforts, including a workaround that provides historic gun ownership estimates
based on statistical blending of multiple data sources (Schell et al. 2020) and a
2021 National Firearms Survey that offers insight into purchasing behavior and
new gun ownership (Miller, Zhang, and Azrael 2022), have helped to fill, but do
not completely ameliorate, the information gap.
Another example is gun tracing data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,
Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Tracing Center, which uses serial num-
bers from guns used in crimes to identify information such as the guns’ original
manufacturer and purchase history. These data are useful to researchers for
understanding the ways that criminals acquire guns and the movement of fire-
arms across jurisdictions and states, but their availability has been curtailed by
provisions—known as Tiahrt amendments—annually attached to ATF appropria-
tions bills (Smart et al. 2023).
Other challenges include uneven law enforcement agency participation in the
National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) that constrains the compre-
hensiveness of data available on the use of firearms in crime; cost barriers that
curb researchers’ access to state-level information on nonfatal firearm injuries
and, thus, narrow the focus of most research to fatal events such as homicides and
suicides; and insufficient tracking systems that limit understanding of changes in
the supply of firearms from the advent of “ghost” guns, or homemade weapons
made from kits (Roman 2020; Smart et al. 2023; Stephens 2019). This is a repre-
sentative, though not an exhaustive, set of examples of the broad and systemic
data issues that plague firearms research.
However, the introduction and rapid growth of social media use over the past
two decades have generated a relatively new source of data for supporting
research and represent a potential opportunity for addressing at least some of the
pervasive gaps in firearms information. Several features of social media data con-
tribute to their general value for research. First, high rates and intensity of social
media use—roughly 70 percent of Americans indicate they use some form of
social media, with the majority of users reporting daily or more visits to their
preferred platform (Pew Research Center 2021)—together produce an extraor-
dinary amount of social media data. In 2022, for example, there were an esti-
mated 6,000 tweets per second and 500 million tweets per day (InternetLiveStats

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