It’s impossible to get through the month of April without thinking about gun violence. Over the last decade, April has become a month scarred with heartbreaking anniversaries: Three years ago, on April 2, a disturbed man went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood military base, killing 3 people and injuring 12.
Ten years ago, on April 16, a shooter opened fire at Virginia Tech, killing 32 people and wounding 17. And just four days later, on April 20, we’ll mark the 18th anniversary the massacre at Columbine High School, where two troubled teenagers executed an elaborate plot, killing 12 students and one teacher.
For many people these mass shootings are flashbulb memories — we remember exactly where we were and how we felt when we heard the news. We remember asking ourselves how something so unbelievable could happen in our country — and what more we should be doing to keep our families, our neighbors, and our students safe not just from mass shootings, but also the gun violence that happens every day.
This April, as we remember the heartbreak of the past, we must renew our focus on what more we can do to finally end the surging public health crisis of gun violence.
This week is National Public Health Week, a time when we acknowledge the lifesaving solutions to public health crises and celebrate the scientists and researchers who work around the clock to make America a healthier and safer place to live.
Take tobacco for example. Thanks to the breakthrough analysis that identified what makes cigarettes so deadly, we crafted policies to deter smoking and prevent cancer.
Another example? Cars. After scientists and engineers were able to identify risk factors, Congress passed the Highway Safety Act in 1966, which included new automobile safety laws to prevent people from driving while intoxicated and discourage drinking underage.
There’s no doubt about it — government funded research has saved lives. And yet, Congress has continues to slam the door on data-driven research into gun violence.
In 1993, a research study funded by the Center for Injury Prevention and Control, a department within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found that having a gun at home increases the risk of both homicide and suicide; a fact that private researchers overwhelmingly agree upon. Terrified that this finding would decrease gun sales, the gun lobby attempted to shut down the Center for Injury Prevention. Thankfully, their campaign was unsuccessful, but they did manage to add an amendment to the 1996 budget bill that stopped federal funding for research relating to gun violence.
This amendment — the Dickey Amendment — has been added to every funding bill since and has effectively banned gun violence from being studied as a public health crisis.
Americans face their fair share of public health crises; the most prevalent are healthcare-associated infections, heart disease, and HIV. To address these crises, the CDC uses the in the public health model, which involves four steps.
First, define and monitor the problem. We know the scope of the gun violence problem: over 30,000 Americans are killed each year from a gun. For every American killed, two others are injured. The toll of this gun violence comes at a high cost to families, communities, our economy, and our country.
Second, identify risk and protective factors. Thanks in large part to private researchers, we have been able to explore the risks of guns. We know that nearly half of suicides occur with a gun which is the most fatal method, resulting in death nine out of ten times. We know that the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide for women by 500 percent.
The third step of the process is to develop and test prevention strategies — but that’s where the Dickey amendment derails the process. And we can’t even attempt the fourth step — which is implementing life-saving prevention strategies — because the federal government is prohibited from getting involved.
We cannot continue to operate within a system that prohibits scientists from doing their jobs. As a nation, we will never be able to appropriately address the public health crisis of gun violence until we fully understand it. Even the former author of the amendment himself, Representative Jay Dickey, has said it is causing more harm than good.
It’s time for Congress to stop serving at the will of the gun lobby and to start providing the resources our institutions of public health need to understand our country’s gun violence epidemic so that we can do something about it.
Gun violence robs communities of their leaders, schools of their students, and families of their loved ones. We know that if we gave our scientists and researchers the opportunity, they would produce results. How much longer will we have to wait before we let them try?
Peter Ambler is the Executive Director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun violence prevention group founded by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Navy combat veteran and retired NASA astronaut Captain Mark Kelly.
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