Letters to the editor in response to studies of guns in the home and homicide and suicide

Wiebe, D. J., Flynn, K., & Branas, C. C. (2017). Letters to the editor in response to studies of guns in the home and homicide and suicideInjury epidemiology4(1), 1-8.


Background: Letters to the editor are an important venue for scientific discussion and ensuring accountability of authors and editors. We investigated the content and tone of letters to the editor published in response to research on having a firearm in the home as it relates to homicide and suicide.

Methods: A recent meta-analysis found 16 analytic studies of household firearm access and homicide and suicide. We audited the letters to the editor emanating from those 16 articles. Each letter was coded for themes by two raters and analyzed using descriptive statistics and cluster analysis. For comparison, we also coded and analyzed the content of letters to the editor written in response to all other articles that were published in the same journal volumes where the firearm articles appeared.

Results: We identified 30 letters regarding the gun in the home studies: 24 (80%) letters to the editor and 6 (20%) replies from original authors. Of the 24 letters to the editor, 30% contained no scientific discussion, 46% made a political reference, 17% criticized the original author’s character, and 25% criticized the journal. Moreover, 29% made a pro-gun reference, 25% made an anti-gun reference, 13% referred to the constitutional right to bear arms, 13% referred to the National Rifle Association (NRA), and 0% referred to advocacy organizations known to be in opposition to the NRA. Of these themes mentioned in letters to the editor, only the NRA was mentioned in a response by an original author. The median number of scientific citations in letters to the editor was one versus four in replies from original authors. In the articles on topics other than firearms that were analyzed as a point of comparison, only 8% contained no scientific discussion, 4% made a political reference, 2% criticized the authors’ character, and 0% criticized the journal.

Conclusions: Letters to the editor in response to epidemiologic research on guns in the home contain considerable content that minimally advances scientific discussion; author responses meet a higher standard for science and civility, as do letters to the editor regarding research topics other than firearms. The scientific study of firearm violence could be better served with more letters containing greater scientific commentary and dissent.

Keywords: Firearm; Gun; Homicide; Letters to the editor; Suicide.