Funding research is essential to begin addressing gun violence

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With the 2020 presidential race heating up, candidates are condemning gun violence as a “national epidemic” and “public health emergency.” This should come as no surprise; U.S. gun deaths are at a 20-year high and showing no signs of abating. What’s needed is a critical reform rarely discussed on the campaign trail: finally removing the 23-year ban on funding research on gun violence that’s blocking the information we need to save thousands of lives.

We have been operating in the dark, thanks to strict barriers to funding credible research on gun violence. By one estimate, only 30 researchers in the entire country are dedicated to gun policy, and they often are severely limited in their ability to collect and distribute data. The 1996 congressional provision, known as the Dickey Amendment, prohibits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from funding research that could be perceived as supporting or advocating for gun control.

The Dickey Amendment had a tangible, chilling effect on public health researchers. After its passage, the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control had its budget cut by $2.5 billion and the center’s director was fired. Afraid of losing funding, the CDC drastically reduced its research and, between 1998 and 2012, CDC publications on the topic fell by 64 percent.

The result was a field unable to rely on funding for research, coupled with the inability to attract the scientific talent that naturally goes where there is opportunity to make meaningful discovery and impact. When we can’t investigate how to address conditions in unique communities and environments, it forces us to create a “catch-all” solution that assumes every incident of gun violence is the same. Meaningful progress on the gun violence epidemic in the U.S. is only possible when researchers have the funds and the freedom to collect the data needed to understand why so many Americans are being injured and killed by guns. 

Now, with the political and cultural winds shifting, a post-Dickey world could be possible, but only if congressional leaders and 2020 presidential contenders make the repeal of Dickey as central to the debate as eliminating bump stocks and tougher registration laws. So far, this hasn’t happened.

This is not academic. The crucial need to direct funding to research that could save lives is highlighted by the important insights we’re gaining through hospital-based violence prevention initiatives. To understand the complexities of gun violence in specific communities, my organization, which focuses on health emergencies around the world, has partnered with NYC Health + Hospitals Stand Up to Violence Program (SUV).  

Local, hospital-based violence prevention initiatives such as SUV are seen by many as central to stopping the spread of gun violence. Most critically, they intervene with trust and credibility, particularly in urban environments, at the “golden window” where a single act of violence can be diffused before setting off a spiral of injury and death. These community-based groups are developing important training and learning opportunities that are saving lives right now. We need to amplify their ability to act with all the support they need. 

We cannot continue to ignore the public health risks posed by gun violence, and good data are required to address the issues facing communities. In 2015, former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), who worked to pass the provision that bears his name, expressed his regret for his role in creating a policy that has stalled gun violence research — and he called on Congress to reverse the law.

It’s time for us to move from regret to action and make sure that every candidate for high office knows that we are tired of being kept in the dark about why our country has been overtaken by gun violence. We need to remove federal regulations that block the funding for research that could pinpoint the most effective interventions to break the cycle of violence.

Fraser Mooney is executive director of Doctors of the World, the U.S. arm of the global humanitarian and social justice group, Médecins du Monde. Follow on Twitter @_MdMUSA.

Tags CDC Dickey amendment Firearms gun violence NIH

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