Lift the Ban on Gun Violence Research
Last week the American Medical Association made headlines when it called gun violence a “public health crisis” and pledged to actively lobby Congress to overturn a 20-year ban on funding for the Center for Disease Control’s research on the issue. It took the horror of 49 people being murdered in Orlando and another 53 suffering injury for the mainstream doctor’s group to finally take a stand on an issue that receives broad support from the scientific community, criminal justice experts and many elected officials. Four years ago, after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, President Obama also called for reversing the CDC research ban; he included $10 million in funding for the agency’s gun violence research in every federal budget since then. Republicans in Congress continue to block it.
This is maddening. Why, in a nation where some 13,431 people died from gun violence and more than 21,000 individuals used guns to commit suicide in 2014 does anyone think a research ban makes sense? The U.S., armed to the teeth with an estimated one firearm for nearly 90% of its 321 million citizens, has the most firearms per capita in the world and accounts for 82% of all gun deaths among 22 nations that include the U.K., France, Australia and Germany. What combination of twisted logic and paranoia has prevented us from pursuing research on the underlying factors associated with gun violence and from developing strategies for reducing the high rate of firearm-related deaths and injuries?
That responsibility rests on the minority of die-hard Second Amendment supporters who have consistently used their outsize influence to drive a pro-gun agenda. Convinced that actual scientific research will bolster the case for tighter gun control measures they prefer to rely on tired rhetoric and false associations to support their arguments. After every shooting, be it massively horrific like in Orlando or the more “ordinary” murder of a wife by an abusive husband, gun control opponents tell us “guns don’t kill people, bad people kill people” or some similar sentiment. When a child finds a loaded gun in a night table and accidentally shoots himself or injures a playmate those same gun rights advocates call it a tragedy; when a middle-aged white man commits suicide by gun it’s a problem with our mental health system.
Meanwhile, the NRA and its members lobbied successfully for gag orders that prevent doctors—even pediatricians—from asking whether patients or their family members keep guns in their homes. They rail against more stringent background checks and laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, terrorists or those who are mentally unstable. Keith Ablow, a physician who is part of Fox News’ medical team, said of the AMA’s announcement, “This is just a liberal progressive agenda. They’re going to eat away at gun rights with medical research. That’s not being doctorly, that’s being political. So stop it.”
Despite the AMA coming late to the table, many researchers–and the last four Surgeon Generals–have long considered gun violence to be a public health issue, especially for African Americans who live in urban areas—the group that experiences the highest levels of gun-related injuries and homicides. The vast majority of gun deaths among blacks (82%) are homicides vs. 14% that are suicides. For white people these proportions are virtual mirror images—77% of gun deaths are suicide, 19% are homicides. In fact, the number one cause of death for young black men (age 20-24) is gun violence; they are five times as likely to be killed by a gun as young white men.
The effects of gun violence, like other public health problems, can be far-reaching in affected communities. In a recent post, Richard V. Reeves, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes, “People who witness high rates of gun violence are more likely to experience mental health issues, which can manifest as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, poor academic performance, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, delinquency, and violent behavior.”
So, let’s get back to this 20-year ban on research. It all started with a 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that strongly linked keeping a gun in the home with an increased risk of homicide. Alarmed by the impact these findings might have on gun control laws, the NRA campaigned to eliminate the CDC center that funded the research. Bowing to pressure, in 1996 Congress passed a bill stating, “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Since then the CDC, wary of igniting the wrath of the gun lobby, has been unwilling to fund any research on gun violence at all.
This ban has had a chilling effect on the collection of such basic data as how many people actually own guns or the number of gun-related injuries or suicides that occur each year. The CDC uses various methods to try and compile yearly figures, but no funding is available for any research on the impact of gun control laws, firearm-injury prevention programs or the even the connection between alcohol and gun violence or mental illness and gun violence. A report released in January 2013 by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, found that since 1996 the CDC’s funding for firearm injury prevention has fallen 96% and is now just $100,000 of the agency’s $5.6 billion budget. Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, tells Wired, “I’m absolutely confident that we lost a generation of researchers because we haven’t had the money.”
Contrast this with the public health benefits gained from decades of research on other preventable causes of death. CDC and other federally-funded research into car crash deaths and injuries has led to laws and technology—e.g. speed limits, drunk driving restrictions, seat belts, airbags—that have greatly reduced casualties. Hundreds of studies on the health consequences of tobacco and second-hand smoke have informed both policy and anti-smoking efforts. Sensible licensing requirements, speed limits, texting laws and penalties for unsafe operation are just some policies that reduce crashes and auto deaths and injuries without preventing most Americans from owning and driving cars. Wouldn’t it be great if the same were true for firearms?
Without federal funding for widespread collection and analysis of gun violence data there remains an evidence void that fuels the endless rehashing of the same old arguments. The vast majority of us are frankly sick of it. Opponents of stricter gun laws claim, for example, that firearms are used more often to prevent crime than to commit crime. Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters of gun violence researchers surveyed by David Hemenway, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, disagree with that claim while only 8% concur. The National Rifle Association insists that there is a clear causal connection between more permissive gun carrying permits and lower crime rates; gun violence researchers who have actually published research on the issue, again disagree, 62% to 9%.
After every mass shooting from Newtown to Roseburg, Oregon to San Bernardino and finally, the shocking loss of life at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the debate over gun laws rages anew. Last week Congress failed once again to pass any new gun legislation—even the no-brainer law that would prevent terrorists from purchasing firearms. Meanwhile, the push to restore federal funding for gun violence research is growing. The AMA joins a growing coalition that includes every other major physician organization, the American Psychological Association, 146 members of Congress, and legions of public health, criminal justice and mental health researchers who want the ban lifted. Tired of waiting for federal action, the State of California just approved $5 million in funding for a gun violence research center at the University of California. We must treat gun violence like the public health crisis it is and not bow to a misguided political agenda that promotes ignorance and seeks to stifle scientific inquiry and evidence-backed policy.