Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Hours before Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, doctors called on Congress to reverse a ban blocking the CDC from studying gun violence.
It’s a debate that comes up over and over again, particularly right after tragic mass shootings like the one that took 14 lives Wednesday at a social services center in San Bernardino, California. Opponents of gun control argue that if the employees at Inland Regional Center had been armed, they could’ve protected themselves. Advocates say the key isn’t more firearms, but more gun control.
So what does science say about whether gun ownership makes us safer? It says very little.
Researchers from federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) have largely been mum on the public health issue of gun violence—not by choice, but because of a 20-year-old congressional ban on federally funded gun violence research.
Just hours before the shooting in San Bernardino, a group of physicians joined a handful of Democratic lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to call for an end to that restriction. They presented a petition signed by more than 2,000 doctors from around the country demanding that Congress lift barriers to “common sense research.”
“Regardless of where we stand in the debate over gun violence, we should all be able to agree that this debate should be informed by objective data and robust scientific research,” said Democratic Congressman David Price of North Carolina, who is also vice chair to the House of Representatives’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.
The ban, proposed and implemented by former Congressman Jay Dickey of Arkansas in 1996 via a rider on an appropriations bill, doesn’t ban all gun research, per se. At the urging of the National Rifle Association, which had accused the CDC of bias after it backed research that found that having a gun increases the risk of homicides and suicides, the amendment simply forbids the use of federal funds on studies that promote gun control.
Still, the language was vague enough to discourage public agencies from doing any investigation on gun violence, even after President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2013 calling on the CDC to resume their research. The risk of losing funding is too great, as illustrated in 1996 when CDC had $2.6 million stripped from their research budget. That, according to the American Psychological Association, was the same amount CDC had invested in gun-related studies in 1995. The CDC had planned to use the funding to study traumatic brain injuries.
Just like that, support for gun-related research effectively dried up. Experienced researchers feared losing their jobs, and newcomers quickly learned that gun violence research was—as The Washington Post put it—“a field without a future.” Over the past four decades, NIH has funded just three studies on gun violence. Such studies, which were few in number, used carefully selected language so that they wouldn’t be misconstrued as violating the ban.
Take, for example, a study on “firearm violence and opportunities for prevention” that the CDC published in November. It analyzed 127 recorded shootings in Wilmington, Delaware, but did not address the effect of firearm access, reports Vice News:
... [I]t does not address how the perpetrators acquired their weapons, or if attempts to limit access to firearms might lead to a dip in crime. Instead, the Wilmington report outlines already well-established trends and risk factors: that 95 percent of city residents arrested for violent crimes are young men; that a history of violence is a strong predictor for being involved in a firearm-related crime; and that unemployment is often a risk factor for violence.
In hindsight, Dickey—the former congressman who proposed the ban—said he regrets the move, telling NPR in October that the amendment was never intended to stop all research. “I don't know, but that's where my regret is,” he said. “I was on to other things and worrying about my constituents. And I didn't follow through and say we … still need to do research. I didn't do that.”
Meanwhile, the frequency of mass shootings spiked, spiraling into a gun crisis that Obama said “has no parallel anywhere else in the world.” The U.S. now has more guns than people, with the average gun owner owning eight guns. And as a Washington Post reporter argued, mass shootings have become the norm, with 355 shootings over 336 days this year. Writing in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the epidemiologist Frederick Rivara—who conducted the study that sparked alarm among the NRA in 1996—and his colleagues said that research may have been able to prevent the uptick.
Injury prevention research can have real and lasting effects. Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans dying in motor vehicle crashes has decreased by 31%. Deaths from fires and drowning have been reduced even more, by 38% and 52%, respectively. This progress was achieved without banning automobiles, swimming pools, or matches. Instead, it came from translating research findings into effective interventions.
Given the chance, could researchers achieve similar progress with firearm violence? It will not be possible to find out unless Congress rescinds its moratorium on firearm injury prevention research.