With another horrific spate of mass shootings in the United States, fueled as they too often are by racism and hate, the nation’s attention has once again turned to asking ourselves and our policymakers how to reduce gun violence in our society. Among developed democracies, the United States stands alone in tolerating a seemingly unending, near-daily death toll from guns in the hands of our people. And not just guns, but weapons of war with high capacity for killing. The Buffalo and Uvalde shootings were perpetrated by young men who had easy access to assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition. These massacres have been seared into the national conscience, and yet other mass shootings continue at an alarming rate, with seven more last weekend alone.
The Union of Concerned Scientists began speaking out about one aspect of the epidemic of gun violence nearly a decade ago: the virtual prohibition on federal funding for research into the public health impacts of gun violence that was put in place by Congress in the 1990s after heavy lobbying by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups. Even though gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children in the United States, overtaking car accidents in 2020, the use of federal funding has been prohibited to investigate the role of gun violence or possible means of reducing death and injuries from guns.
Cars vs. guns
Let’s think about that unconscionable prohibition, which only began to be lifted in 2019.
For automobiles, also a major cause of death and injury, research has helped lead to many safety requirements, including airbags, electronic stability control, safety belts and the LATCH child safety seat system. Comprehensive statistics on automobile safety have been collected since the 1960s. That research is broad and heavily funded by the federal government, totaling more than $660 million in 2020 grants to the states alone.
For gun violence, however, there is federal data going back only to 2015 with sporadic information from earlier years. And virtually no federal funding for research into gun violence was available for many years prior to 2019.
Federal gun safety measures were enacted in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since then, the principle federal measures have been a temporary five-day waiting period before a gun can be delivered to a buyer, which was enacted in 1993 and expired in 1998. Background checks are still required to discover if purchasers are convicted felons who remain legally prohibited from owning firearms. For ten years—from 1994 to 2004—there was a limited ban on assault weapons. And Congress has exempted the gun industry from liability for any act of violence resulting from the use of their products, unlike virtually all other industries.
A trickle of funds
The congressional ban on funding research into gun violence was lifted in 2019. But that doesn’t mean there has been a major investment in this scientific work.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has granted 16 two-year research grants totaling just under $8 million starting in 2020. The objectives of the granting program are to inform the development of enhanced safety measures to prevent injuries, deaths and crimes, and to evaluate the effectiveness of safety strategies to reduce firearm related injuries, deaths and crime, including for families, schools, and communities. The CDC research effort is guided by a National Academy of Sciences report from 2013.
Spending $8 million for research into safety measures to reduce more than 45,000 deaths and countless injuries is not a lot of funding.
The CDC also funded ten state health departments to collect data on emergency room visits from non-fatal firearms injuries but these programs are new. There is no historical federal data because the states haven’t been collecting it. There is a national system for collecting data on violent deaths administered by the CDC as well as a system for collecting data on school violence.
CDC under Biden
Without a formal ban on research, the CDC under President Biden is slowly expanding its efforts. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky gave an interview to CNN on the topic expressing interest and concern about gun violence from a public health perspective. That immediately enraged the National Rifle Association (NRA), of course. Even talking about gun violence, let alone researching approaches to make gun ownership safer, is apparently threatening to the NRA – while the group apparently perceives 45,000 deaths and the shooting of school children with assault weapons as not really a problem.
President Biden, in a recent speech called for banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines, expanding background checks, enhanced safe gun storage rules, and enacting red-flag laws to enable law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from a person deemed dangerous by family and friends. All of these measures have been shown by research to reduce gun violence while still allowing responsible gun ownership.
Research can and should help lead the way to find solutions to the most difficult public policy challenges. But only public pressure can shift the political barriers to greater understanding of problems and the implementation of effective policies.
We have learned a lot about epidemics in the past two years. It is long past time to address the epidemic of gun violence.