If you go looking for U.S. public health studies under the term "gun violence" (1,150 studies), you might be surprised at how woefully thin the results are compared to, say, the wealth of research done on rabies (more than 12,000 studies). But newly proposed changes to American gun policy may soon open the research floodgates and afford scientists an opportunity to look more critically at firearms.
In the early 1990s, researchers at a new U.S. Centers for Disease Control outfit focused on gun violence published papers showing that just living with a gun in the home nearly tripled a person’s risk for being murdered and increased their risk for committing suicide nearly fivefold.
But in 1996, Congress, supported by the National Rifle Association, effectively shut down the research efforts by eliminating the center’s budget. Since then, the appropriations bill for the CDC and the NIH has reflected a specific agenda: “None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control" -- effectively hamstringing gun violence research. NRA lobbyist Chris Cox, who was part of the effort to limit the budget, later told The New York Times that the CDC center was “putting out papers that were really political opinion masquerading as medical science."
Many academics say the law has stymied scientists’ efforts to investigate the roots of gun violence. On Wednesday, the president signaled he was siding with them.
“Public health research on gun violence is not advocacy,” a presidential memorandum issued Wednesday said.
One of the 23 executive actions Obama unveiled Wednesday was a memorandum directing the CDC to research causes of gun violence, and prevention efforts. The president also called on Congress to provide $10 million to the CDC to conduct further research, including studies that would investigate the role of violent media and violence in video games.
Brown University economics professor Nathaniel Baum-Snow was one of more than 100 academics who co-signed a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, head of Obama's gun task force, calling for the government to fund gun violence research.
“I think it’s a little bit odd that we spend so much resources as a society to conduct research on diseases and other things – safety in transportation systems, airplane safety, stuff like that – and spend so little resources to better understand one of largest causes of death in this country, which is gun violence,” Baum-Snow said Wednesday.
The letter signed by Baum-Snow and spearheaded by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab noted that while firearms have resulted in more than 4 million deaths in the U.S. between 1973 and 2012, there were only three National Institutes of Health research awards made to study gun violence over that time. In contrast, since 1973 the NIH made 486 research awards to scientists looking at cholera, diphtheria, polio and rabies, which altogether have accounted for just over 2,000 American deaths over nearly four decades.
There are other major challenges to researchers looking to study gun violence besides lack of funding, according to Baum-Snow.
“The government, because of legal restrictions, has kept data on gun tracking very close to the vest and not made it available publicly,” he says. “There is all this data on where guns that were involved in shootings came from, but access is pretty restricted.”
While the president’s memorandum on Wednesday mentioned enhancing the gun tracing processes for law enforcement, it did not specifically call for making data available to researchers.
The academics’ letter also calls for the CDC to fully implement its National Violent Death Reporting System, which collects facts about violent incidents from police and medical examiner reports, death certificates and crime laboratories. At present, the NVDRS operates in only 18 states (New York and California are not among them).
On Wednesday, Obama said he plans to draw up bills to expand background checks on gun purchases and limit the sale of high-capacity magazines. He also called on Congress to reinstitute the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. The original bill, passed in 1994, was pushed not only by then-President Bill Clinton, but by former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
“While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals,” Ford, Carter and Reagan said in a 1994 letter to Congress.
While gun control policies can make guns harder to find for criminals and well-regulated militias alike, some public health experts do not think assault weapons bans and background checks are the sole solution to gun violence. In a paper published Jan. 7 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a trio of Massachusetts physicians said a broader perspective is essential.
"Gun violence arises from sociocultural, educational, behavioral, and product safety issues that transcend gun ownership alone," the authors wrote.
Part of a broader gun strategy may involve looking to other massive public health campaigns, such as tobacco and poison control and motor vehicle safety efforts. The authors of the JAMA paper argue that taxing firearms and ammunition could generate funds to be put toward combating gun violence, as cigarette taxes were put to use in anti-smoking campaigns. They also pointed out that government broadcast policies curtail sex and obscenity in the media but leave large loopholes for violence.
Better safety features on guns should also be a priority, akin to the push for safety features on cars in recent decades, the physicians say.
"Policy aimed exclusively at the individual perpetrator of gun violence would be no more effective than a motor vehicle injury prevention strategy focused only on the individual driver in a motor vehicle crash," the authors wrote.
Some companies have been working on "smart gun" technology that would let a firearm be used only by an authorized person. A gun would only fire if it recognized an authorized user, either by an RFID chip worn in the skin or on a bracelet or ring, or by biometric readings like fingerprint scans. But the concept has raised the hackles of both the NRA and gun owners, over both privacy concerns and fears that the technology could fail in a moment of crisis.
In 2002, New Jersey passed legislation requiring all new handguns sold in the state to be equipped with biometric sensors, once satisfactory prototypes became commercially available. But local research at the New Jersey Institute of Technology has stalled as funding dried up.
But perhaps a loosening of federal purse strings for gun violence research could change the outlook for smart gun technology and provide a bridge between gun safety and gun control.