Editorial: Congress at long last ends funding drought for gun violence research
Buried in the 2020 federal budget bills Congress approved this week is $25 million for gun safety research to be divided between the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The inclusion is less notable for the amount — $25 million is a drop in the bucket when it comes to research funding — than for the fact that Congress budgeted the money at all, ending more than two decades during which it mostly declined to spend research money on this crucial public health issue.
The funding drought began with the 1996 Dickey Amendment, named for its sponsor, former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), that barred use of federal money for research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” That year, Congress also cut $2.6 million from the CDC’s research budget, sending a message to federal agencies to stay away from gun research. It was a clear win for the National Rifle Assn., and a loss for the then-growing body of scholars who viewed gun violence research as a way to prevent injuries — much like the underlying research work that goes into automotive safety regulations — rather than as fuel for gun control.
It’s hard to measure what has been lost in the intervening years, but researchers argue that much work needs to be done on understanding individual and social risk factors that can lead to gun violence, examining how exposure to gun violence affects people over time and whether there is a link between that and future acts of violence, what measures are effective at reducing gun violence and what correlations exist between gun injury rates and such factors as open-carry laws, gun thefts and firearm training.
“The epidemic of gun violence is a public health emergency,” said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat whose district includes Newton, Conn., site of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 20 children and six adults. “The funding for evidence-based research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health will help us better understand the correlation between domestic violence and gun violence, how Americans can more safely store guns, and how we can intervene to reduce suicide by firearms.”
We hope it does that, and more. Despite the absence of federal funding, research has been growing in recent years into the causes and impacts of gun violence, funded by private donations and innovative programs such as the Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis, which the state Legislature created in 2016 with $5 million in state funding over five years. Six East Coast states last year announced a joint Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium to share data and policy ideas. But such efforts only help fill a significant gap. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. found that about as many people die in the U.S. each year from gun violence as from sepsis, which arises from infections, yet gun violence research drew less than 1% of the funds and generated only 4% of published studies compared to sepsis research.
It’s true that gun deaths occur at much lower rates than they did a quarter-century ago, as overall violence has decreased in the U.S. Yet mass shootings are up, and overall gun violence in this country far outpaces the rates among other developed nations. It is in our public health interest to better understand what leads to gun violence, and to try to craft policies and programs to reduce it. The NRA and its acolytes tend to view any knowledge as a threat to Americans’ ability to own arsenals, which is as preposterous as the notion that the federal government will — or even could — rid the nation of privately owned firearms.
The government can help lead the way in figuring out how to make this a safer nation, and we hope the new funding is just a start. It is crucial to understanding the cause of, and reducing the incidence of, the one-on-one violence that dominates our gun violence problem, but also mass shootings and gun suicides, which account for about half of gun deaths each year. Knowledge, as they say, is power, and as a nation we need to learn a lot more about this dark aspect of the national psyche.
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