The government largely abandoned the study of gun violence as a public-health issue in the mid-1990s. Now, lawmakers and gun-control experts have demanded that the agency take up the issue again
Guns in the home protect families.
For decades, that has been an essential part of the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) mantra in defending firearms ownership, repeated at congressional hearings, in advertisements and on T-shirts.
Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who once headed research on firearm violence at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wondered if there was any evidence backing the NRA’s assertion.
“So we looked at the question, does having a gun at home protect your family or not?” Rosenberg recalled.
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He was amazed by the answer. The landmark study in 1993 showed that bringing a gun into the home puts everyone at much greater risk. “They were saying if you want to keep your family safe, if you are a real man, you will have a gun at home,” Rosenberg said. “Bringing the gun not only didn’t protect you, it put you at much, much greater risk.”
To this day, gun-rights advocates dispute the study’s findings. The NRA pushed Congress in 1995 to stop the CDC from spending taxpayer money on research that advocated gun control. Congress passed the Dickey Amendment in 1996, and cut funding that effectively ended the CDC’s study of gun violence as a public-health issue.
The result is that 22 years and more than 600,000 gunshot victims later, much of the federal government has largely abandoned efforts to learn why people shoot one another, or themselves, and what can be done to prevent gun violence.
After the Parkland school massacre in Florida this past month, lawmakers and gun-control experts have demanded that the agency take up the issue of studying gun violence again, arguing that the federal law doesn’t ban such research altogether but prohibits advocacy of gun control.
Alex Azar II, secretary for health and human services, said at a congressional hearing that he believed the CDC should resume the work. “We’re in the science business and the evidence-generating business,” Azar said, “and so I will have our agency certainly working in this field, as they do across the broad spectrum of disease control and prevention.”
“We have repeatedly and consciously turned our back on the problem,” said Garen Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine who in July started the Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California, Davis, with state funding. “How many thousands of people are dead today who might have been alive if that research effort had been put in place and we had answered critical questions and set prevention measures in motion?”
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, President Barack Obama directed the CDC to reconsider gun-violence research. The agency commissioned a report from the Institute of Medicine outlining priorities but never followed up.
The most pressing questions cited by the institute, now known as the National Academy of Medicine, still have no answers. Who is most likely to use a gun in a crime, and where does the gun come from? How often are guns used in domestic-violence cases? How often are people arrested for gun crimes the same individuals who actually bought the weapons? Then there is a separate set of questions about what kind of policy changes or prevention efforts actually reduce gun-related deaths and injuries.
Andrew Morral, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corp., directed a recent study that found moderate evidence that background checks do reduce both firearm suicides and homicides. The report also said there is moderate evidence that stand-your-ground laws, which allow people to use guns to defend themselves without first trying to retreat, may increase the murder rate.
“In many cases, we’ve been having arguments about factual matters for decades,” Morral said. As an example, he cited laws that seek to prevent children from killing themselves or others with guns.
“The NRA has argued that such laws make it tough for people to defend themselves in a crisis,” Morral said. “But there’s no research on that. We’ve argued and argued and argued, and we have not invested in the research needed to answer the question: What is the trade-off between childhood deaths and self-defense?”
The new set of proposals by President Donald Trump calls for a commission to examine whether to raise the age to 21 from 18 for young people to buy certain firearms. Just after the Parkland killings, Trump repeatedly supported raising the age, but the latest proposals do not include such a measure — one that the NRA opposes.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has continued to fund some gun-violence research, including violent crimes related to drug and alcohol consumption, and parental roles in preventing injury from firearms.
NIH is also assessing ways to reduce suicides and accidental deaths among children and adolescents and war veterans. More than 60 percent of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides.
The Justice Department also studies gun violence, but the budget for that research is a small fraction of what the federal government spends on looking at other high-mortality hazards, like car accidents or smoking — money that has led to actions that greatly reduced deaths in both categories.
Private foundations have stepped up to fill the gap. But there is another congressional roadblock that private money cannot circumvent — the Tiahrt Amendments, which prevent the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from sharing its firearms-tracking database with anyone outside of law enforcement.
Those records, Morral and other experts say, are crucial to analyze the flow of guns used in crimes over state borders, from places where guns are easy to buy to places where it is tougher.
The Dickey Amendment technically did not ban gun research, only advocacy. Its real goal — one it easily achieved, according to public-health officials at the time — was to scare federal agencies into thinking twice about even collecting data that might reflect badly on gun ownership.
Since the Parkland killings, there have been signs of change. Several Republican lawmakers said they would support the CDC taking on the issue.
Some Democrats are pressing to take advantage of the new mood on Capitol Hill. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., have both pressed Azar for details, but as of Friday neither had received a response.
“From fighting cancer to decreasing road traffic fatalities, public health research has played a critical role in saving lives,” Murray wrote to Azar. “It is immoral and unacceptable to treat gun violence any differently.” In the House of Representatives, Democratic members of the Committee on Energy and Commerce have called for a hearing on the adequacy of federal research into gun violence.