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Permitting Research on Gun Violence

January 17, 2013

WASHINGTON -- President Obama unveiled his plan for curbing gun violence Wednesday -- and most of the attention went to provisions having to do with background checks, and bans on certain kinds of weapons. But the plan also includes a move to end what has been a de facto ban by Congress on research on gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies that support research.

Obama issued an order to the Department of Health and Human Services to have the CDC as well as the National Institutes of Health study issues related to gun violence, and asked Congress to appropriate $10 million for additional work in the area. Obama said in his public remarks that research is part of the solution to gun violence, and he sharply criticized the past limits on studies.

"While year after year, those who oppose even modest gun safety measures have threatened to defund scientific or medical research into the causes of gun violence, I will direct the Centers for Disease Control to go ahead and study the best ways to reduce it -- and Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds," Obama said in introducing his new policies. "We don't benefit from ignorance.  We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence."

He followed that up immediately with a memo to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, telling her to work with the CDC "and other scientific agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services [to] conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it. The Secretary shall begin by identifying the most pressing research questions with the greatest potential public health impact, and by assessing existing public health interventions being implemented across the nation to prevent gun violence."

The president's actions are consistent with several requests from violence scholars in the last month, as Vice President Biden led an administration task force to develop the plan released Wednesday. Dozens of scholars of violence this month -- organized by the Crime Lab of the University of Chicago -- issued a joint letter to draw attention to the impact of federal policies that have effectively banned federal support for their studies.

The scholars' letter notes that federal agencies have been hesitant to support research on gun violence because of a provision regularly attached -- at the behest of critics of gun control -- to the appropriations bill for the NIH and the CDC. The provision states: "None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control."

While federal research funds (whether covered by that provision or not) are not supposed to be used for advocating political positions, federal research officials have feared that their funds would be cut for supporting studies of gun violence since those studies might be used (by lawmakers or others) to advocate for gun control laws.

As a result, the letter from the scholars noted, a major cause of death in the United States has received hardly any research support over the last 40 years. The Chicago scholars released this table:

Cumulative Morbidity From Various Conditions, Firearms Injuries
and NIH Research Awards, 1973-2012

Condition Cases in U.S. Number of NIH Grants
Cholera 400 212
Diphtheria 1,337 56
Polio 266 129
Rabies 65 89
Firearms injuries more than 4 million 3
 
"[E]xisting federal funding is far below the levels warranted by the enormous impact of gun violence in the United States," said the letter from the crime scholars. "In the absence of such funding, basic and applied research in this area has been paltry and to the extent it has been carried out it has been only through the support of a small group of private philanthropic funders which is hardly a reliable, sustainable or responsible means for our nation to tackle one of the most pressing public health problems we currently face. NIH has a tremendous opportunity and an imperative to provide sustained support for high-quality, credible research in this area."
 
Further, the letter said that the pattern of avoiding funding grants in these areas represented a deviation from important principles of federal support for research. "Gun policy research and evaluation should be carried out through the normal processes of scientific peer review employed in other important areas of clinical medicine and public health," the letter said. "Removal of constraints on research would send an important message to both federal officials and the research community regarding their independence from political and ideological interference in the research process."
 
It is unclear whether the National Rifle Association -- which is leading a campaign against President Obama's proposals -- will focus on the research issues. The NRA press office, asked about the issue, only released the association's general statement of opposition to the White House policies.
 
A 2011 article in The New York Times, following the shootings in Tucson, detailed NRA criticism of social science research on guns, and the rationale offered for the limits on the use of federal funds to study gun violence. The article said that NRA members were alarmed when CDC-supported research in the mid-1990s found that having a gun in one's house significantly increased the chances of homicide by a family member or acquaintance. These findings ran against the NRA view that having a gun in one's home increased security.
 
The article quoted an NRA lobbyist as saying that the problem was one of bias. "Our concern is not with legitimate medical science," the lobbyist said. "Our concern is they were promoting the idea that gun ownership was a disease that needed to be eradicated."

 

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