Restrictions on Gun Violence Research Are on the White House’s Radar

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | January 15, 2013, 1:38 pm EDT
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Since I last wrote about the need to end federal restrictions on gun violence research, the chorus calling for such a move has become larger and significantly louder.

More than one hundred researchers in crime, medicine, public health, economics and public policy wrote the White House Gun Violence Commission on January 10. In addition to asking for an end to restrictions on research, the letter calls for the federal government to invest in “unbiased scientific research and data infrastructure.”

On this second point, the researchers call out the almost complete absence of gun violence research at NIH and compares it to research on other issues (sources for these statistics can be found in the researchers’ letter):

Major NIH research awards and cumulative morbidity for select conditions in the US, 1973-2012

Condition Total cases NIH research awards
Cholera 400 212
Diphtheria 1337 56
Polio 266 129
Rabies 65 89
Total of four diseases 2068 486

Firearm injuries




In a speech yesterday at the Johns Hopkins Gun Policy Summit, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg called out this disparity in a different way:

“The National Institutes of Health is estimated to spend less than $1 million on firearms injury research – out of an annual budget of $31 billion. To put that in perspective, NIH spends $21 million annually researching headaches. But it spends less than $1 million on all the gun deaths that happen every year. If that doesn’t give you a headache, it should.”

Mayor Bloomberg released a new report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns about efforts to suppress data and research funding on gun violence. Notably, the report addresses the Tiahrt Amendments, which limited data collection on firearms purchasers, making it more difficult for law enforcement to identify sources of gun crimes or identify “straw purchasers” (individuals who buy guns legally and pass them on to criminals).

Also yesterday, in response to a question I posed at an event at the Center for American Progress, both Representative Mike Thompson (who leads the congressional Gun Violence Task Force) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (who is active with Mayors Against Illegal Guns) expressed support for removing the research restrictions. More reporters are starting to pick up on this issue.

On Thursday of last week, Vice President Joe Biden indicated publicly that lifting the funding restrictions was on the radar screen of the Gun Violence Commission. Let’s hope it stays there. It’s clear that both Congress and the executive branch should do all they can to allow independent research related to gun violence to move forward.


Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , ,

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  • Desiree Henshaw

    I am glad that the need for unbiased research and basic fact-finding is finally being brought to the public’s attention. Guns and gun violence are such emotional issues, for both sides, and in the absence of any hard data, it is frightening to see how people are getting swept up in the media hype, and proposing some pretty drastic responses to a problem we don’t really understand. Should we outlaw semi-automatic weapons and restrict who can own a gun? Should we have tighter security and more guns? It’s all emotion and opinion, and anybody’s best guess what is the best thing to do, when we don’t really understand what causes gun violence. Whatever measures we take to try to make shootings more difficult, they will not be effective if we don’t understand why people are turning to violence in the first place, and take steps to give citizens other outlets for their anger/pain and whatever else might be driving them to want to shoot a bunch of people.

    Personally, I am not a fan of guns: I don’t own one, and I always favor a non-violent solution to a problem whenever one is available. However, I also believe is important for citizens to maintain the right to protect themselves from the government (as provided for in the Bill of Rights) and from home intruders as well. It is a complex issue. So although I don’t really like guns, and I think that the potential for their misuse is probably greater than their potential to protect me, I don’t think that simply getting rid of guns is necessarily the answer. If people want to fight, they will find a way to fight, even if it is with sticks and stones and home-made bombs. But if we teach people non-violent, respectful ways to communicate and resolve conflicts, then they won’t have to resort to shootings and suicide. If we all try to be more caring and less judgmental towards the people in our lives, if we listen to people respectfully when they are upset, they can be heard and get their problems resolved before they pick up a gun and head for a crowded area. These shootings are only a symptom of a larger problem, and though we may not want to admit that we all contribute to the problem, the good news is that if we are part of the problem, we can also be part of the solution.

    So, yes, please do research the causes of gun violence, and be as objective as possible. It seems that gun proponents have been behind the squelching of gun violence research, but I would urge them to reconsider that stance: objective research into the causes of gun violence will not necessarily lead to restrictions on people’s gun rights. In fact, in the current social climate of fear and emotional outrage, it may be the only thing that can save our right to bear arms. If scientific research can show why gun violence occurs (presumably not from the mere ownership of a gun), then action can be taken to solve the real problem, and citizens can continue to make their own personal choices about whether or not to own a gun. And if objective scientific research shows that the availability of guns really is causing gun violence, or is causing it in certain populations, then even staunch NRA supporters might consider revising their opinions.

    As a final point, for those of you who are desperate to take action now, consider this: teaching respectful communication and non-violent conflict resolution (to EVERYBODY, maybe starting with at-risk groups) has the potential to decrease all kinds of violence, and may make this dispute over gun ownership a moot point. It has a great potential to help, and pretty much zero potential to hurt. Use the recent school shooting as a talking point, show how violence hurts everyone and doesn’t solve any problems. Encourage people who are feeling desperately angry to speak up and vent their rage, and provide a safe forum for them to do so. Listen without judging, try to understand, help them find a non-violent solution that will heal their rage rather than letting it smolder. People don’t walk into a school and shoot children, teachers, and themselves without a pretty compelling reason. Let’s find out why, and see what we can do to help before it gets so dramatic.

  • 01-16-2013

    Dear President Obama:

    As a physician and a big supporter of Public Health, I believe you’ve made a sensible initial decision how to sequentially eliminate the gun violence issue. Please continue, based on the subsequent development of the change of statistics once your first decision is fully implemented and properly reinforced, how your initial decision will effect this national issue.

    Having gathered such information, please continue to decide how to choose subsequent sequential decisions based on the same types of new statistics. Please make future sequential decisions without the influence of lobbyists.

    John M. Ackerman, M.D.
    [email protected]