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Gun Control Agenda Is a Call to Duty for Scientists

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Science  25 Jan 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6118, pp. 381-382
DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6118.381
21-gun salute?

Customers at a Florida gun shop watch as Barack Obama unveils new firearms proposals.


When President Barack Obama unveiled an ambitious gun control agenda last week, attention was riveted on his proposals to prevent guns and ammo from falling into the wrong hands. But the administration also moved to get a better understanding of the root causes of gun violence. Declaring the roughly 30,000 firearm-related homicides and suicides each year "a public health crisis," Obama directed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies to study the causes and prevention of gun violence—ending a 17-year freeze on CDC-sponsored firearms research.

Obama's order is a "startling and wonderful thing," says Stephen Teret, co-director of the Center for Law and the Public's Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, agrees: "Not only will more work get done, but the nature of the work will change dramatically. We'll be able to ask bigger questions."

First, researchers will have to make up for lost time. By the early 1990s, a series of CDC-funded studies had indicated that easy access to guns and keeping firearms at home increases homicide and suicide rates. "The fact that gun ownership was being identified as a risk factor for violent death legitimately raised the possibility" that gun policies might need to change, Wintemute says. The National Rifle Association (NRA) swung into action to stifle that threat. For gun-possession advocates, Wintemute says, "It made perfect sense to try to prevent that evidence from being collected in the first place." Contending that CDC was pursuing a gun control agenda rather than unbiased science, former U.S. Representative Jay Dickey (R–AR), who described himself then as "NRA's point person in Congress," convinced the House to cut $2.6 million from the CDC budget: the precise amount that the agency's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control was slated to spend on gun violence research that year. (In The Washington Post last July, Dickey, who lost his House seat in 2000, wrote that he has since become an advocate of research on preventing firearms injuries.)

The 1996 legislation prohibited CDC and the National Institutes of Health from conducting research that might "advocate or promote gun control." Coupled with the funding cut, the proscription cast a pall over the field, Teret says. Although his program has survived on private funding, the CDC ban "was devastating for the field of gun violence prevention," he says. Many young researchers, Teret says, ditched firearms studies in favor of other public health issues.

As a result, from 1996 to 2010, academic papers published on gun violence fell by 60%, according to a review released last week by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Today, fewer than a dozen public health researchers in the United States focus primarily on gun-related violence, says Wintemute, who funds his group's research out of his own pocket. CDC and the teams it funded were not the only victims. Beginning in 2003, a series of riders on budget bills called the Tiahrt Amendments restricted the collection and distribution of gun-related crime data by the Department of Justice. Although some restrictions have since been removed, others remain. For example, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service must destroy background checks on gun buyers within 24 hours of using them, and journalists and researchers are not allowed to access data that the agencies collect.

The first agency unfettered by the administration is CDC. Backed by a legal analysis that the 1996 appropriations language does not bar research, Obama last week stated that CDC will immediately start to assess strategies for preventing gun violence and work to identify "the most pressing research questions." He also asked Congress to give CDC an additional $10 million for further research, "including investigating the relationship between video games, media images, and violence." And he called for $20 million to expand the National Violent Death Reporting System from 18 states to all 50 states. That, he said, would help "Americans better understand how and when firearms are used in a violent death and informing future research and prevention strategies."

Some activists assert that research on firearms violence is a low priority. "If there was a public policy benefit to doing it, you'd have researchers doing it just because there was a demand," contends John Lott, an economist and outspoken supporter of gun ownership. And although some studies may be worthwhile, he sees little reason for taxpayers to foot the bill. "It's hard to divorce politics from the government handing out the money," says Lott, who argues that independent researchers could do it better.

Scientists, for their part, are chomping at the bit to pick up where they left off 17 years ago. "We don't know much of the basic epidemiology of firearm violence," Wintemute says. "What are the risk factors for involvement as a victim or a perpetrator? What distinguishes those who have the same risk factors but don't have the same outcomes?"

Such questions might finally get answered if Congress refrains from imposing new restrictions, says Arthur Kellermann, a firearms researcher at RAND, a Santa Monica, California–based think tank. His work in the 1990s, including a provocative study showing that households with guns had five times greater risk of suicide than those without guns, made Kellermann a "personal lightning rod" for NRA's ire, he says. Two promising research questions, he says, are to probe whether gun safety training programs are effective at reducing firearms injuries and whether it is possible to design handguns that a young child cannot fire. "I would have answered both questions over a decade ago if there had been any support to do it," he says. He and others may finally get that chance.

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