Deadly Shooting at California Synagogue—Where is the Gun Violence Research, CDC?

April 30, 2019 | 4:28 pm
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

This weekend I learned that my hometown of Poway, California, a sleepy suburban city just north of San Diego, was the location of a violent shooting at a Jewish synagogue. A 19-year old walked into a synagogue armed with an AR-type assault rifle and began firing on Jewish people who were gathered to observe the last day of Passover.

It is downright disconcerting when a mass shooting occurs in the place you grew up in. Every weekday I used to drive by the Chabad synagogue on my way to my high school classes. The hospital that the shooting victims were taken to is the same hospital where I got my wisdom teeth removed. I spent the weekend reaching out to family and friends in my community in an attempt to process this horrible act of violence.

But the sad reality is that these types of shootings occur every single day in the US. Only four months of 2019 have passed, and yet 496 people have been injured or killed in mass shootings—this equates to four people dead or injured every single day this year. And with hate-filled philosophies against ethnic and religious minorities inciting mass shootings in places as varied as Pittsburgh, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka, we need science more than ever to provide us with answers on how best to combat gun violence.

Here’s the thing: Congress gave the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the “ok” to investigate this long running problem back in 2018. It’s now been one year, but there are still no signs that CDC scientists have been able to begin their investigation into this public health issue. The more we delay researching gun violence, the more we delay implementing evidence-based policies that can prevent gun violence.

The CDC is still not researching gun violence…

Scientific research on gun violence has been stalled at the federal level for over 20 years. Congress has attached a rider called the Dickey Amendment to every appropriation bill since 1996. This has halted all research at the CDC on gun violence.

It is highly unusual for CDC to not investigate a significant public health issue, and one 2017 paper even quantified the effect on the research community. The study authors concluded that, when compared to other leading causes of death, gun violence research was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least funded cause of death at the CDC.

In March 2018, we saw some real movement for change. Just three days before the first March for Our Lives protest, Congress clarified that the CDC is able to pursue research to help stop gun violence, which cracked open the door for federal research. But the crack wasn’t wide enough—Congress has failed to allocate funding opportunities for gun violence research, and there continues to be an extreme dearth of scientific research on gun violence at the CDC.

… and yet CDC scientists are chomping at the bit to carry out this important research

One year later and we are in the same place as before. CDC scientists feel barred from conducting research on the causes and prevention strategies against gun violence, despite an increased desire to carry out this research. How many more deaths and injuries by firearms must occur before we provide our scientists with the ability to use science to find the best ways to prevent further tragedies?

In 2018, we surveyed scientists at 16 federal agencies, including the CDC. In this survey, as well as previous surveys, CDC scientists expressed palpable frustration at the politics that prevent them from researching gun violence. Here is a sampling of some of their quotes:

  • “The continued ban on funding for research on gun violence has resulted in a gap in knowledge about gun violence and how it can be prevented.”
  • “The policy to NOT allow study of gun violence is counter to our public health mission.”
  • “CDC does not conduct any research on gun violence, despite it being an issue that needs to be addressed in this country, all due to political influence.”
  • “No reasonable person can escape the conclusion that our country is experiencing an epidemic of gun violence, in particular mass shootings… CDC specializes in understanding epidemics, and could shed some light on this phenomenon using standard public health approaches… To me it is unconscionable to prevent dedicated scientists [from doing this research].”

My colleagues have written extensively on this topic before (see here, here, here, here, here). The continued stall in gun violence research by the CDC needs to be rectified. People are literally dying because we are not doing this research. We need to study the causes and effects of gun violence so that we can provide evidence-based measures that can halt this public health epidemic.

This can’t keep happening

I did a Google search of my hometown this weekend and Google suggested that I add terms like “shooting,” “shooter,” or “manifesto” after it. Poway, California, nicknamed “the city in the country,” will now forever be known as the place of a hate-filled shooting rampage that was directed at members of its Jewish community.

As our country faces yet another mass shooting, we need to demand that policies based on science are carried out to prevent another tragedy. But to do that, we need Congress to provide unwavering support to the CDC for them to research the causes of gun violence and how to prevent it. We need to demand that science be free to investigate the public health crisis that is killing and maiming Americans every single day.