Science Under the Rug: How Government and Industry Hide Research on Gun Violence

Posted on July 15, 2013

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Research into the causes of gun violence is critical to developing policies aimed at reducing this form of violence and making our communities safer.  Only by understanding the causes of gun violence can we better address this public safety issue that results in the deaths of 30,000 Americans every year.

Attempts to suppress and obscure science are increasingly common features of many public policy battles – especially around tobacco, evolution, climate change, guns, and abortion. Legislators have forced doctors to tell patients falsehoods about their pregnancies and abortion and compelled teachers to mislead students about evolution. At the NRA’s behest, federal funds for gun violence research were eliminated, and basic data on gun violence cannot be gathered. Meanwhile, Big Tobacco and fossil fuel producers are the most prominent, but hardly the only, industries which have conspired to obscure research and attack researchers who reveal their products’ dangers. Across the board, science is being obfuscated, misinterpreted, and ignored in efforts to keep the facts out of the hands of the public.

In June, the Law Center’s Executive Director Robyn Thomas joined a panel of researchers from across disciplines at Netroots Nation to discuss the history of research on gun violence and ways in which that research has been blocked by the gun lobby’s efforts. Below are some of the interesting points outlined at the panel.

The History of Guns and Research

In 1992, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) was launched at the Centers for Disease Control, solely to do research on injury causation in America. Within it, the Division of Violence Prevention set out to investigate and address those injuries considered “intentional.”

Only a year later, the results of one of the first studies funded by CDC was published the New England Journal of Medicine.  The article by Arthur Kellerman, et al, entitled “Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home” found that keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide.  The article concluded that rather than confer protection, guns kept in the home are associated with an increased risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.

Kellerman clearly stated that the studies weren’t intended as briefs for gun control, but simply to provide information to help people make rational, evidence-based decisions about whether to keep a weapon at home. The NRA was outraged by the results, and spent several years campaigning for the elimination of the NCIPC, finally succeeding in getting language included in 1996 in the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill to strip the NCIPC funding on gun injury research.

How the NRA Succeeded in Repressing Research on Gun Violence, The Dickey Amendment:

In 1996, at the behest of the NRA’s self-described “point person” Congressman Jay Dickey, the NRA simultaneously got language in the Appropriations bill stripping the CDC of their entire budget for firearm injury research ($2.6million) and included a provision explicitly forbidding any CDC funding “to advocate or promote gun control”.

This had the further chilling effect of sending the message to the CDC that further research on firearms would endanger the agency’s funding as a whole. Academics are highly dependent on federal grants for the research, so general academic research also followed suit (60% decline during the same period). This same language stripping all funding used for gun injury research and forbidding “advocacy” was added to the NIH funding bill in 2011.

Ironically, in a 2012 op-ed with former NCIPC director Mark Rosenberg, Dickey completely changed his position from 1996 and wrote in favor of funding scientific research into firearm injuries.

The Results of the Dickey Amendment, the Reduction of Research, and the Suppression of Data:

  • Public funding to study gun violence averaged $2.5 million annually (1993-1996). By 2012, public funding for gun violence research had decreased to $100,000 of the NCIPC $5.6 billion budget. This represents a 96% decline from 1996-2012.1
  • By contrast motor vehicle injury used to claim over 40,000 lives annually in the mid 90’s. By investing in safety research ($500 million annually) this rate has fallen 36%, to an annual rate similar to firearm injury.2
  • The rate of firearms injury has remained unchanged over the past 20 years. While the US accounts for 30% of the population of the 32 OECD countries (mostly, European, South America, the Asia-Pacific Rim), it accounts for 90% of the firearm homicides.3
  • Over the past two decades, in addition to limiting research, the gun industry and the NRA have worked aggressively to restrict law enforcement’s access to gun trace data and trafficking.  The Tiahrt Amendment, passed in 2006 as a rider to an appropriations bill, prevents the ATF from using its electronic database to organize its records and prevents cities and elected officials from sharing data about gun crimes.4
  • US Department of Justice (The National Institute of Justice) did significant research on the flow of illegal guns and trafficking patterns in the 1990’s.  Between 1993 and 1999, NIJ conducted 32 gun-related studies and with funding restrictions there have not been any new studies since 1999.5
  • Other laws attempt to restrict professional’s ability to ask questions about guns, such as the military’s limitations on discussing firearm ownership  with troops under their command, or report on suicides (62% of which involve a gun) and state laws which limit a physician’s ability to educate families about safe storage of guns in the home.6
  • In 2004 the National Research Council issued a report, Firearms and Violence, a landmark assessment of the state of knowledge in the field and said “the inadequacy  of data on gun ownership and use is among the most critical barriers to a better understanding of gun violence… if policy makers are to have a solid empirical and research base for decisions about firearms and violence, the federal government needs to support a systemic program of data collection and research that specifically addresses this issue.”7

Since Newtown, Gun Violence Research is on the Agenda

President Obama committed to ending the freeze on gun violence research in his executive orders following the Newtown tragedy. He included in the 2014 Federal Budget $30 million in new funding to “track gun violence” and to research prevention strategies.

  • $20 million will go to funding expansion of CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System and $10 million to new research. Final approval of the funding is still an uphill battle, as it needs to be included and approved in the final Congressional budget.8
  • The virtual research blackout has meant that efforts to craft legislation to reduce gun violence have little empirical data to rely on.  Without hard information, policymakers are stuck arguing against emotional and ideological positions rather than evidence-based ones.

The Senate is now poised to help further this crucial public health research into gun violence by providing much-needed funding.  This funding should be unencumbered by restrictions or conditions that serve only to chill research.

Even the original sponsor of the CDC rider, former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-AR), has repudiated his earlier position and now acknowledges muzzling research is a big mistake; in an op-ed he co-authored earlier this year with a CDC research director, Dickey wrote: “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.”

  1. “Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) FY 2013 Budget Request Summary,” CDC, http://www.cdc.gov/fmo/topic/Budget%20Information/appropriations_budget_form_pdf/FY2013_Budget_Request_Summary.pdf. []
  2. “Wisqars Fatal Injury Reports,” National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/mortrate10_us.html. []
  3. Estimated by Mayors Against Illegal Guns from total research by NIH, CDC, and NIJ. “Access Denied: How the Gun Lobby is Depriving Police, Policy Makers, and the Public of the Data We Need to Prevent Gun Violence,” Mayors Against Illegal Guns, http://libcloud.s3.amazonaws.com/9/cc/3/1482/AccessDenied_print_021713.pdf. []
  4. “Gun Control: Statutory Disclosure Limitations on ATF Firearms Trace Data and Multiple Handgun Sales Reports,” Congressional Research Service, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS22458.pdf. []
  5. “Access Denied: How the Gun Lobby is Depriving Police, Policy Makers, and the Public of the Data We Need to Prevent Gun Violence,” Mayors Against Illegal Guns, http://libcloud.s3.amazonaws.com/9/cc/3/1482/AccessDenied_print_021713.pdf. []
  6. U.S. Department of Defense, National Center for Telehealth and Technology, “Suicide Event Report: Calendar Year 2010 Annual Report,” 2010, at 2. []
  7. Charles F. Wellford, John V. Pepper, and Carol V. Petrie, editors, Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review (Chicago: The National Academies Press, 2004). http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309091241 []
  8. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Justification of Estimates for Approprations Committees, Fiscal Year 2014,” at 11, 12, http://www.cdc.gov/fmo/topic/Budget%20Information/appropriations_budget_form_pdf/FY2014_CJ_CDC_FINAL.pdf. []