CDC Scientists Plea to Congress: Let Us Research Gun Violence

, researcher, Center for Science & Democracy | February 16, 2018, 1:53 pm EDT
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This past Wednesday, our nation bore witness as another gun-related tragedy unfolded, this time at a high school. Seventeen people were shot and killed, more than two dozen others wounded at Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida after a heavily armed, former student of the school brazenly opened fire on unsuspecting, innocent teachers and pupils. There have been 290 school shootings since 2013, 1,333 mass shootings since 2014, and 56,755 deaths by guns since 2014– yet our government does not deem gun violence to be a public health concern worth researching. We must support scientists to do the necessary work that would shed light on how to protect the public. How many firearm casualties must there be to justify use of federal investment for research into the safety of this country’s residents?

Government scientists understand the value in studying gun violence, but we won’t allow them to do their jobs. As my colleague mentioned yesterday, a policy rider that has been included in spending bills since 1996 effectively bans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence. The so called the Dickey amendment has not definitively outlawed research on gun violence and safety, but Congress “coincidentally” removed funding from the CDC to the exact amount it once spent on that research. This sends the message to CDC scientists that such research is strongly discouraged, deprioritized, and ultimately, it is not conducted.

Scientists Survey: Scientists Feel Restricted on Gun Research

Scientists are still feeling the effects of that decision two-decades later. In 2015, the Center for Science and Democracy (CSD) at UCS, long committed to protecting scientific integrity at federal agencies, conducted a survey of federal scientists, including scientists at the CDC. The purpose of the survey was to ascertain how scientists felt about the state of scientific integrity at their respective agencies, and to glean how effective science-based agencies were at meeting their missions. Several scientists at the CDC voiced their concerns about Congress and interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) interfering in their work – especially related to gun violence research. Here are a few of the most poignant comments from CDC scientists:

  • “The integrity of the scientific work would be improved if the National Rifle Association did not prevent CDC from doing more research on gun violence in the U.S.”
  • “…I am not aware of the instances where internal processes for CDC’s decisions and other activities have been inappropriately affected by influence from industry or related interest groups. Yet, it is fresh in my memory that due to the influence from the congress CDC has not been able to engage in research on guns. In my view the widespread availability of guns is a major public health issue of the U.S. The congressional influence has limited CDC’s capacity to address this issue, and I strongly hope the ‘ban’ be lifted in the future.”
  • “The main concern I have is about Congressional interference in scientific and epidemiological studies that relate to gun violence (i.e., cutting the funding for this type of research). This is a clear example of political interests preventing the advance of public health knowledge and practice.”

Earlier this week, CSD launched the most recent iteration of the scientist survey, adding scientists from 12 more agencies and bureaus to the list. It will be interesting to see if CDC respondents will have more or less to add on the issue of gun research this time around. Their (anonymous) input will be extremely useful for helping shape recommendations for agencies on scientific integrity, and potentially a good tool to push Congress toward finally allowing scientists to study how our nation might address this growing public health threat.

Yesterday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar kind of opened the door on lifting the research ban at CDC (which is a part of his agency), by telling Rep. Kathy Castor in a congressional hearing that he believes the “poison-pill” policy rider doesn’t prevent CDC scientists from doing their job. When asked if he would be more “proactive” on gun violence research at the CDC, Secretary Azar said that the agency will. Hopefully, congressional appropriators will see the secretary’s comments and remove this anti-science policy rider in the next spending agreement and CDC scientists will see an on-the-ground change where the agency leadership will encourage research on this public health crisis. You can bet that UCS will be looking to hold Secretary Azar and other administration leaders accountable and hold them to this commitment.

The families of victims need more than thoughts and prayers; they need action. They need policies. They need gun reform based on scientific research. And to do that, as policymakers have said themselves, we need data to ensure the most effective measures are taken.

Cara Loughran. Alyssa Alhadeff. Scott Beigel. Nicholas Dworet. Aaron Feis. Jaime Guttenberg. Chris Hixon. Peter Wang. Alaina Petty. Luke Hoyer. Carmen Schentrup. Joaquin Olivier. Meadow Pollack. Gina Montalto. Martin Duque. Alex Schachter. Helena Ramsay.

These are real people, just as the victims of every senseless act of gun violence are. They are not just statistics. Let’s have a moment of silence to reflect on their lives, their untimely deaths – but let’s not remain silent on pushing for gun violence safety research and science-based policies that can follow.

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  • Brian Vats-Fournier

    academic.oup.com/epirev/article/38/1/140/2754868 Here’s 130 studies on these questions. If the CDC is afraid of being essentially fined for doing its job, perhaps they can just read these other studies and make recommendations based on their understanding of these studies.

  • Steve Galt

    Why are you advocating for government funding? There are countless people shaming the NRA and the GOP for the lack of action. I believe these folks would be willing to fund such a project. You’re currently unhappy with the government’s defunding of research into gun violence. Everyone else is unhappy with the government’s inaction on policies to prevent mass shootings. Face it: The government sucks at pretty much everything it does. You don’t need them. Do it without them and the result will be better.

    • Michael M

      Because if anti-gun groups fund the study, the NRA and government conservatives will call the study “fake news” and skewed.
      Are you really that ignorant as to how things work with partisan issues?

      • Steve Galt

        I think you are the one who is ignorant. The stringency of the study will be the best way to guard against those accusations.

      • Michael M

        Impartial government studies can’t be stringent, only partisan funded studies have that capability?
        Are you really that ignorant that you believe facts matter to partisan groups?

      • Steve Galt

        I have an academic degree in the humanities and have some familiarity with peer-reviewed scholarly research in the humanities.

        Well, your bias is alreafy evident. But I’m not saying that government funded studies can’t be done well. I’m saying that privately funded studies can be done well and that the findings of the study will determine accusations of partisanism rather than the source of funding.

      • Michael M

        My bias is based upon experience in scientific research.
        It’s probably not a secret which political group is anti-science and anti-fact at the moment.

        While funding is tight and grants are always welcomed, one must prepare to expect the source of the grant to be called into question on partisan issues – especially by non-scientists who could care less about the data and only care about an agenda.
        When a partisan group offers funding, they are usually expecting a result which aligns with their agenda. If you don’t conclude what they expect, the funding dries up quite quickly.

        Partisan funding is how we once had “scientists” claiming smoking is safe, and we now have “scientists” claiming increased man-made CO2 levels will have no adverse effect on the environment.
        These are views are debunked in peer review, but the general public and partisan groups and politicians skew them as fact. This kind of skewed “science” funded by partisan groups is what delegitimizes real science, even if it is real impartial science done with partisan funding.

        It’s best to steer clear of partisan funding on issues like this if you want your data to be accepted by the general public.

  • Brett Smiley

    The late Jay Dickey agreed at the end of his life!

    “We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago, but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners. The same evidence-based approach that is saving millions of lives from motor-vehicle crashes, as well as from smoking, cancer and HIV/AIDS, can help reduce the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence.”
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-wont-know-the-cause-of-gun-violence-until-we-look-for-it/2012/07/27/gJQAPfenEX_story.html