After a 20-year drought, US lawmakers fund gun violence research

Gun violence research just got $25 million in federal funds, after a 20-year drought in funding for that purpose. The spending bill passed by US lawmakers today allocates half of the money to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and half to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Both agencies will use the money to fund studies on gun violence, which kills tens of thousands of people each year in the United States.

“The significance of this is huge,” says Mark Rosenberg, who oversaw gun violence research at the CDC until 1996, the last time such research was funded. “For 20 years, the government has not sought answers using science to this horrendous public health crisis.”

The Democrats originally pushed for $50 million in funding. But while the final amount is only half that — and is far lower than funding for other public health hazards, like motor vehicle safety research, which regularly receives hundreds of millions of dollars in funding — experts say it’s better than nothing.

“It won’t get us where we need to be, but it’s a great start,” wrote Emmy Betz, deputy director at the Program for Injury Prevention, Education and Research at the Colorado School of Public Health, in an email to The Verge.

Federal gun violence research from a public health perspective stalled out after Congress passed the Dickey Amendment in 1996, which said that federal funding could not be used to promote or advocate for gun control. The amendment effectively cut off research dollars to health agencies like the CDC and NIH, though some work on gun violence continued at the Department of Justice. But in March 2018, the House spending bill clarified that the Dickey Amendment did not prevent public health research on gun violence.

“The reason the House was able to pass a bipartisan measure is because Democrats finally realized the Dickey Amendment is key to a bipartisan coalition. If you say the money can’t be used to lobby for gun control, that gives Republicans cover to support it,” Rosenberg says.

Rosenberg says that this injection of federal funding into gun violence research will help open up more avenues of funding. He hopes the research, when it begins, is multidisciplinary, and will involve agencies like the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice. “I hope the CDC and the NIH work together to sort out an agenda,” he says. Both the CDC and the NIH bring different skill sets to issues around gun violence: the CDC, for example, is particularly good at studying patterns within large swaths of public health data, while the NIH’s strength is looking at factors that put people at risk for harm. “Hopefully they will coordinate a plan that identifies really important questions, and starts answering them.”

For Rosenberg, there are four major areas to investigate around gun violence: the scope of the problem, the causes of violence, the strategies that work to prevent it, and the best way to implement those strategies. “The most urgent is probably figuring out what works,” he says. A recent analysis from the RAND Corporation found that there’s little scientific evidence on most gun violence policies. “The only way you can tell what works is by testing it. You cannot figure out in your head if arming teachers in schools will save more lives or take more lives,” he says. “We just don’t know what works.”

Various research groups have made recommendations around the types of studies they’d like to see done around gun violence. The American College of Emergency Physicians, for example, published a research agenda in 2017 calling for studies that include looking at the causes of unintentional firearm injury, characteristics of people who commit mass violence with firearms, and best practices for emergency department physicians to talk about firearm storage. “I hope that the NIH and CDC will look to existing documents about research priorities in each of the areas of firearm injury and death,” Betz wrote.

Scientific research won’t be able to find a single cure for gun violence, Rosenberg says. But it hopefully can figure out which strategies will make a dent in the problem. “It’s the same way we save lives from motor vehicle deaths,” he says. “We figured out how to have safer cars, safer roads, safer drivers. And we’ve saved hundreds of thousands of lives through research.”

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