How America’s Lack of Gun Violence Research Hinders Prevention Efforts


Why are there so few evidence-based solutions to curb gun violence? Experts say it’s because for 20 years, very few people were studying it.

The recent mass shootings at a shopping mall in El Paso, Texas, and on the campus of Michigan State University are two of the latest high-profile examples of what has been a deadly start to the year for gun violence in the U.S.

The U.S. has witnessed more than 90 mass shootings since the start of January, according to tracking data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. In that time, more than 7,000 people have been killed by firearms, including more than 3,000 people who died by homicide and more than 4,000 who died as the result of suicide. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll found 63% of Americans were either “very” or “somewhat” dissatisfied with current U.S. gun laws — the highest level of disapproval recorded in 23 years.

Yet despite the rising death toll and the public frustration, advocates and experts say there is an alarming lack of knowledge about how to effectively address the gun violence epidemic. Many put the blame for that on a two-decade dearth of gun violence research they say has made it challenging both to understand the extent of the problem and to effectively combat it.

“We know so little about the scope of this epidemic or its aftereffects,” Dr. Megan Ranney, deputy dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, said during a recent forum on gun violence prevention held by Northwell Health in New York City. That lack of knowledge, she said, is “thanks in part to those 23 years of limited federal funding for research, thanks in part to some continued federal policies that limited our ability to track firearm injury data, and thanks in part to fear about collecting data.”

Such gaps in data have made it harder for researchers and policymakers to evaluate the effectiveness of gun violence prevention strategies that have already been implemented. A recent report by RAND Corp., for example, reviewed 18 common gun-related policies in states and found little evidence for their efficacy. The strongest evidence showed that safe storage laws helped to reduce both intentional and unintentional self-inflicted firearm-related deaths and injury among youth, and that both “stand your ground” and concealed carry laws were associated with increases in gun homicides.

The report found modest evidence suggesting that popular policies like background check requirements and waiting periods to purchase a firearm reduced homicides, or that setting age restrictions on gun purchases reduced firearm-related suicides. But the bottom line, according to researchers, is that better information is needed to inform policies.

In a recent op-ed, Andrew R. Morral, director of the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, argues that it is impossible to know the extent of the country’s gun violence problem, because, while the federal government does collect data on firearm-related deaths through the National Violent Death Reporting System, there is no exhaustive system to track the annual number of non-fatal firearm injuries. He also notes that federal surveillance currently does not track mass shootings, and that government data on firearm deaths can usually take a year or more to be released.

“There hasn’t been a prioritization of a need to get these data together faster,” Morral says. “I don’t want to downplay the possibility there are logistical obstacles to doing this fast and efficiently, but I believe it could be done with sufficient investment.”

Previous efforts to create a national firearm injury surveillance system have hit political roadblocks. In 1994, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded the development of seven firearm-injury monitoring systems in states, but the effort ended in 1997 when Congress enacted the so-called “Dickey Amendment,” which stated, “…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.”

Although the Dickey Amendment was not an outright ban on federal funding toward gun violence research, lawmakers – encouraged by pro-gun groups – reduced the CDC’s budget by $2.6 million in 1997, the exact amount the agency had allocated annually toward firearm research and data collection the year before. The result was that the CDC virtually stopped nearly all of its firearm research funding for more than 20 years until 2019, when Congress passed an omnibus bill that included a provision to dedicate $25 million toward gun violence research. Since then, an annual budget of $25 million a year has gone toward funding gun violence research, with that amount split between the CDC and the National Institutes of Health.

Public health advocates and the Biden administration have pushed for further increasing the amount the agencies receive for funding gun violence research. In March 2022, the administration requested $60 million for the CDC and NIH as part of President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2023 budget. Last April, a coalition of health organizations, health care providers and state and local health departments sent a letter to congressional leaders expressing their support for the requested increase, adding that an appropriation of $100 million a year would be needed to fully fund research in the field of gun violence.

“The $25 million that comes from CDC and NIH is a drop in the bucket still, but it was nothing before that,” says Dr. Chethan Sathya, a pediatric trauma surgeon and director of theCenter for Gun Violence Prevention at Northwell Health system in New York. “It has added a tremendous sense of legitimacy to researching this field as a public health issue.”

Despite the need for more funding, experts say promising efforts are underway to improve gun violence surveillance. Since 2020, the CDC has funded a three-year project with 10 state health departments aimed at providing timely surveillance data of hospital emergency department visits involving nonfatal firearm injuries. But it is unclear whether the project will continue to be funded beyond its scheduled end at the end of August.

Joshua Horwitz, a professor of gun violence prevention at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says the lack of past federal investment in researching and testing potential gun violence reduction strategies has made it even more imperative for local and state governments to pilot projects and policies.

Horwitz says some states have taken that approach to “extreme risk” or “red flag” laws, which can prohibit people who have domestic violence restraining orders or who are deemed a risk to harm themselves or others from owning firearms. Those laws, he says, were based on evidence that domestic violence protection orders reduced domestic violent incidents. Thus far, 19 states and the District of Columbia have enacted extreme risk laws, with Horwitz and others continuing to study their impact.

“When we started this, we didn’t know if it would work. We had a hunch based on evidence that it would,” Horwitz says. “And now we are collecting the data and trying to understand what works, what doesn’t work, and what are the best implementation practices.”

Source: US News