In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, we heard calls to ban so-called bump stocks, the accessories that allow semiautomatic weapons to fire more rapidly: The devices apparently were used by Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock.
But would a ban on those accessories lead to a decline in gun violence in the United States? If you're searching for studies that would offer some data on that topic — or, for that matter, on many topics related to U.S. gun violence — chances are pretty good you'll likely come up empty.
That's because the federal government, which pays for the majority of scientific research in the United States, doesn't allow research into gun violence.
In fact, the federal government since 1996 has specifically banned funding research into gun violence. The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996, states that "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."
While there is, arguably, a little wiggle room there — research into gun violence does not necessarily translate into gun-control measures — a funding decision Congress made that year made the congressional intention clear to researchers: According to Lacey Wallace, an assistant professor at Penn State University, the legislation came with a $2.6 million budget cut. That amount exactly matched the amount of money the CDC had spent on firearms research the previous year. The result: Researchers, especially those in academia, have been discouraged from studying gun violence. And few private organizations are willing to provide funding for such research. (The online version of this editorial includes a link to a piece about this issue Wallace wrote for the online site The Conversation.)
If your question now is whether it's appropriate to consider gun violence a public health issue, Wallace provides some of the answers: Gun violence, she reported, is a leading cause of premature death in the United States. It kills more people each year than diseases such as HIV, hypertension and viral hepatitis.
Wallace quoted CDC figures showing that 33,954 people were killed by firearms in 2014; about the same number of people died in motor vehicle accidents that year.
Yet the debate about how best to stop mass shootings such as the Las Vegas massacre and this week's shooting at a church in Texas goes forward without the benefit of any good recent data that could be used to help evaluate policy suggestions. The resulting vacuum is one of the reasons why this debate always is stuck in neutral — wheels spinning, lots of smoke, but no movement in any direction.
The Dickey Amendment came in the wake of a CDC-funded study led by physician and epidemiologist Arthur Kellerman; the study found that having a gun in a home increased the risk of homicide. The study, as you might imagine, proved controversial: After the results were published, the National Rifle Association lobbied lawmakers, arguing that the CDC was inappropriately using its funds to push for gun control.
Lawmakers agreed with the NRA's position. Still, some federal funding for gun research remained available through the National Institutes of Health, due to an executive order from the Obama administration. But that directive faded as the Trump administration came into power.
It's hard to imagine a similar situation in any other public health area. Would we block federal spending on research into opioids for fear it might identify smarter policy options to deal with addiction? Would we stop funding research projects into obesity because we didn't to offend soft-drink manufacturers?
The debate about gun control isn't going away. But without the ability to further study the issue, we're likely to keep rehashing old arguments. Repealing the Dickey Amendment could be a good first step toward casting new light on the issue. (mm)