Gun Violence Research Back on Federal Public Health Agenda

By Tucker, Charlotte | The Nation's Health, April 2013 | Go to article overview
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Gun Violence Research Back on Federal Public Health Agenda

Tucker, Charlotte, The Nation's Health

WHEN gun violence happens, two factors have come together: a violent situation, and access to a firearm.

Researchers who study gun violence ask themselves how to keep those two factors apart, but their work has been much more difficult for the past 17 years, during which federal funding for gun violence research has been virtually nonexistent.

President Barack Obama changed that when he issued an executive memorandum Jan. 16 directing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to "conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it."

The memo was one of a number of steps Obama took to combat gun violence in the wake of numerous mass shootings and violent deaths caused by guns nationwide.

"Right now, we're in this huge public and political debate about gun control," said Daniel Webster, ScD, MPH, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. "I've been doing my best to tell us what we know about effective gun control, but we need more research so that we can have policy discussions."

Though the lack of federal funding has often been referred to as a ban on gun violence research, it was never really a ban at all, Webster said. In fact, the law only said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies could not use funds to advocate for gun control.

"It began in 1996, after CDC funded some studies that showed that keeping firearms in the home increases the risk for homicide and suicide in those homes, and they came under a great deal of criticism from the National Rifle Association," Webster told The Nation's Health.

As a result of that criticism, Congress first threatened to completely eliminate all funding for CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which had funded the gun studies, Webster said. But ultimately, it cut the center's funding by $2.6 million--the amount that had been spent on firearm injury research.

That decision sent a message to CDC that it would be prudent for the agency to be cautious about funding such research, Webster said.

"What President Obama is doing is sending a clear message to CDC, as well as to other branches of government, that gun violence is a very important public health and social problem and that we rely on these agencies to support the research to make sound decisions about the best ways to keep us healthy and safe," Webster said.

Sara Newman, DrPH, MCP, chair of APHA's Injury Control and Emergency Health Services Section, said the policy change has the potential to result in data that will help target gun violence prevention efforts.

"When we limit our ability to do science and gather evidence, we limit our ability to affect positive change," she told The Nation's Health.

But the president's announcement does not mean that suddenly the floodgates of funding will open to gun violence researchers, said Arthur Kellermann, MD, MPH, a former professor of emergency medicine and dean for health policy at the Emory School of Medicine.

Kellermann, who currently holds the Paul O'Neill Alcoa chair in policy analysis at the Rand Corporation, called Obama's memo "very significant" but said it may be too early yet to know how consequential it will be.

"The president can direct money to one issue or another, but it's Congress that appropriates," he told The Nation's Health.

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