When Ignorance Kills: On The Lack of Federal Research Into Gun Violence

When Ignorance Kills: On The Lack of Federal Research Into Gun Violence

In the last few decades, gun violence has afflicted our country, invading almost all aspects of our lives, from our churches and our schools to our places of work and leisure. Every year, approximately 30,000 Americans die from gun-related violence. Yet, no matter how tragic the mass shooting or “commonsensical” the proposed policy, Congress continuously fails to reach a bipartisan agreement on any viable policy solution. Proposing new policies requires research, which is the crux of America’s gun violence problem—we barely have any.

Despite the intolerable persistence of gun violence, in the past two decades, federally funded research has been virtually nonexistent. A 2017 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association compared funding and research for other causes of death, and found that “[i]n relation to mortality rates, gun violence research was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least funded cause of death after falls.” Just as concerning as the lack of research is the current absence of a national database to track gun-related deaths. Car accidents account for a similar number of annual deaths as gun violence; however, the government has an extensive database, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, for tracking vehicular fatalities. The database records not only deaths but over one hundred other variables in an accident such as car type, speed, and weather conditions.

While researchers have access to extensive data on vehicular deaths to update and improve the country’s car safety standards, we suffer from a severe deficiency of data on gun-related deaths such that even a simple piece of information like the number of households with firearms remains uncertain. The lack of progress in addressing and resolving America’s gun violence problem is baffling, especially when compared to the advancements made in car safety over the past few decades. In order to understand the dearth in funding for research into one of the country’s major causes of death, we must look at the Dickey Amendment, one of the major roadblocks to gun violence research over the last two decades.

Why There Isn’t Enough Research

Since its inclusion in the 1996 federal government omnibus bill, the Dickey Amendment has effectively halted the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) research into gun violence. Not only has the shortage of funding severely handicapped researchers’ attempts to produce comprehensive studies, but it also continues to hinder future studies by disincentivizing young researchers from entering the field.

The Dickey Amendment is technically not a ban on gun violence research. It declares that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” However, Congress made its intentions clear when it subsequently cut the CDC’s budget by the same amount allocated during the previous year for gun violence research, effectively drying up all of the organization’s funds for this purpose. In the two decades since—both due to fear of the potential political backlash for funding research into gun violence and the House’s repeated rejection of proposals to appropriate funds to the CDC to investigate gun violence—the CDC has effectively been barred from conducting any research into this area.

Recently, the media’s increased scrutiny of the Dickey Amendment has forced Congress to clarify its ambiguous text. Last March, Congress stipulated that, despite the amendment’s interpretation as a ban since its inception, the CDC is, in fact, permitted to conduct gun violence research. Only time will tell whether this small clarification will be consequential. On the one hand, it could signal Republicans’ willingness to open the door to federal research; on the other hand, it may merely be a facade, implemented solely to assuage recent public outrage. Either way, in order for this clarification to have any real significance, the House must be willing to agree to appropriate funds to the CDC for research. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely. Only a few short months after the bipartisan agreement in March, House Republicans rejected proposals to appropriate funds to the CDC for this area of research. Without increased federal funding, the CDC will be forced to make the exceptionally painful decision to defund some of its other programs and research areas.

The Pitfalls of Privately Funded Research

Privately funded research seems to be a possible alternative to federally funded research; however, this approach has some significant limitations. In response to the lack of federal research, a few non-profit organizations, universities, and institutes have looked to use privately funded research to fill this void. While the initiatives undertaken by these groups are better than nothing, private research efforts will always be hampered by resource constraints, and therefore will always be dwarfed in scope and applicability by federal research efforts. Since private researchers lack access to much of the government’s data about guns, they are often forced to base their studies on estimates—a clear restraint on the legitimacy of any study’s findings. Privately funded research also faces questions of legitimacy regarding its funders’ political leanings, thereby undercutting the perceived veracity of a study’s findings. All of the aforementioned limitations make it evident that private organizations cannot address the issue of gun violence without the help of the federal government.

How More Research Would Lead to Substantiated Solutions

It is indisputable that the country desperately needs to reduce gun violence. Without federally funded research to determine the most effective policies to achieve that end, the country will continue to engage in futile debates about largely unsubstantiated solutions and fail to break free from the current cycle of inaction.

Currently, the majority of studies that inform many, if not all, of proposed gun policies are significantly flawed. For instance, RAND Corporation researchers examined thousands of journal articles, books, and research papers on gun violence prevention and gun policies and found a concerning lack of studies that met their standard of scientific rigor. Of the thousands of studies they reviewed, only 63 possessed “the scientific rigor to show that a given policy actually changed a given outcome, such as the number of suicides or accidental injuries.” Moreover, on central questions such as “Do assault-weapon bans reduce mass shootings or violent crime?” and “What do we know about gun-free zones, defensive gun use, or policy effects on the gun industry?” the available evidence was either too uncertain or virtually nonexistent, respectively, to provide an answer. In the face of this immense uncertainty about gun violence, the country continues to put the cart before the horse by arguing over solutions without having the necessary evidence to inform the debated solutions.

In the absence of reliable studies and data, debate over the issue—now filled with divisive rhetoric—has become futile. A challenging obstacle preventing us from repairing this debate is the false dichotomy between conducting gun violence research and protecting  Americans’ Second Amendment rights. Unfortunately, many of those who oppose federally funded gun violence research have been deceived into believing that this research will necessarily result in the undoing of gun owners’ Second Amendment rights. In other words, people falsely equate support for research into gun violence with support for any policy proposal that may follow from that research. Gun rights fundamentalists must instead see research for what it is: an imperative step in learning more about a major national issue.

A debate must eventually occur to discuss whether a policy will seriously infringe on individuals’ Second Amendment rights. But before we can have this debate, we must first fund  and conduct research at the federal level. Once there is research to substantiate particular policies, then we can productively debate the issue.

Despite how divided the debate over gun policy seems, there appear to be several key areas in which there is potential room for agreement. A recent study conducted by the RAND Corporation, which interviewed more than one hundred gun-policy experts from both sides of the debate, discovered that “the two sides mostly agreed on what the objectives of any gun policy should be.” Experts from both sides listed “reducing homicides and suicides as the top priority, followed by preventing mass shootings, protecting privacy rights, protecting hunting and sport shooting, and protecting gun rights.” As the study importantly highlights, both sides largely agree on where the country should be headed. This reveals that the disagreement is not over what we want, but how we want to get there. In other words, access to more data and research on how best to achieve those objectives could help bridge the gap between the two sides—or, at the very least, allow for more constructive debate on policy solutions.

The Significance of Mobilization in the Midterm Elections

The upcoming midterm elections present voters with a crucial opportunity to exert pressure on Congress to investigate gun violence more deeply. Voters should mobilize to support federal funding for gun violence research because resultant policies would have  greater potential to achieve bipartisan support. Calling on Congress to designate funds to the CDC for gun violence research is more palatable in this contentious political climate than is demanding immediate policy changes. This approach has already experienced some success. Only a little more than a month after the Parkland shooting, Congress (in addition to the Dickey Amendment clarification) included a provision in the 2018 omnibus bill called FixNICS. The provision requires important improvements to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that will hopefully improve its accuracy and comprehensiveness through better data-keeping at the federal level.

Getting Congress to designate funding to the CDC for gun violence research is not itself a solution to America’s gun violence problem, nor does it guarantee that Congress will subsequently pass policies to address gun violence. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that, without research, Congress will either remain stalled in political gridlock or it will implement insufficiently substantiated policy. Federal funding for gun violence research is a vital first step toward solving the much greater and pressing issue of gun violence. It is paramount that we take this step, as it will encourage a more fruitful, effective policy debate.

(Overhead picture: healthcarestudies.com)

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