Congress must vote to fund gun violence research

Congress must vote to fund gun violence research
© Greg Nash

In 2017, nearly 40,000 Americans died from gun violence. The total firearm death rate increased 17 percent over the last decade, while the firearm suicide rate increased 19 percent over the same time period. We see shootings every day — in American homes, schools, workplaces, streets, public spaces, places of worship. We live in fear that our communities will be the next targets. By now, it should be clear to all Americans that gun violence is a public health crisis.

Normally, such a serious threat to public health would be addressed by researching the causes of the problem and developing evidence-based solutions. But unfortunately, legislators have held gun violence researchers hostage for more than two decades by refusing to appropriate dedicated funds for gun violence research.

As gun deaths have soared, federal researchers and scientists have had their hands tied; they have been limited in their efforts to discover and develop new programs and solutions to reduce American gun fatalities and injuries. But last month, that finally began to change.

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In May the Democratic-controlled House Appropriations Committee allocated $50 million to support “firearm injury and mortality prevention research” divided evenly between CDC and NIH. This week, the House votes on this funding. It is critically important for policymakers to allow researchers to study gun violence, examine the data, and formulate solutions that can save lives. It is essential for our leaders to treat gun violence as they would treat any other public health crisis of its magnitude.

Take our government’s approach to motor vehicle fatalities as an example. In 1975, the Department of Transportation began tracking motor vehicle deaths in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. The system records more than 100 variables, including information on the crash type, vehicle type, road type, driver characteristics, and passenger characteristics. Since the government began tracking this information, the rate of motor vehicle fatalities has nearly been cut in half. Unfortunately, there is no similar national database for gun deaths. We cannot reduce gun violence without having an accurate picture of the data. To tackle the problem, we must have a clear understanding of the problem itself.

Opponents of gun violence research often claim we understand the problem well enough. They say there is nothing else we need to know about gun violence, nothing more to discover about this field. This could not be further from the truth. Gun violence takes many forms and is a multifaceted problem that requires complex analysis and data-driven solutions.

We need more research and data to better understand risk factors for unintentional firearm deaths, homicide deaths, and suicide deaths. We need data to help inform best practices for safe gun ownership, safe storage, and safe gun usage. We need to learn about the role of alcohol and the role of illicit substances in firearm violence. We need to better understand the risk factors for committing gun violence. We need to know how physicians can effectively counsel suicidal patients on safe gun storage. We need to research best practices for implementing gun laws. We simply need more information in order to help us understand what contributes to gun violence in all its forms — and what can be done to prevent these injuries and deaths.

If the CDC allocated research funding based on a given public health concern’s toll on American lives, one study found that gun violence should have received about $1.4 billion in research funding; however, gun violence research received only $22 million in federal funding. The same study found that gun violence research was the least researched cause of death and the second least funded cause of death, just after falls.

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While the private sector has funded some gun violence research, these resources do not come close to meeting the needs of this public health crisis. Only a handful of private foundations fund firearm violence research. Today, there are only about 30 dedicated gun violence policy researchers in the U.S. There are no government training grants available to fund doctoral students and postdocs in gun policy research. By withholding resources, we are discouraging young, bright minds from studying one of the most pressing public health problems we face.

Public health research seeks to help reduce and prevent death and injury and translate research into effective interventions, whether through policy or practice. Public health research has contributed to reducing motor vehicle fatalities, drownings, fires, and tobacco use. We can do the same with gun violence — but only if we have the resources. The House must do the right thing and vote to fund gun violence research.

Dakota Jablon is the director of federal affairs at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.