University Researchers Protest Defunding of Gun Safety Research

Monday, January 14, 2013
Sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd in front of UN building in New York City

The federal government is prohibited from spending money to study one of the leading causes of death among Americans—responsible for about 30,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries costing $2 billion every year—because an industry group worried about profits lobbied Congress to bar attempts to save some of the lives lost.


If it were the cigarette industry stopping research into tobacco a national uproar would ensue. But because the cause of death at issue is firearms and the trade group is the National Rifle Association (NRA), it has taken the cumulative impact of the high profile mass shootings of 2012—bottoming out with the massacre of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, Connecticut—and a recent open letter signed by 109 academic researchers to raise the question.


Addressed to Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading a task force charged with making recommendations to reduce gun violence by the end of the month, the letter urges “the removal of the current barriers to firearm-related research, policy formation, evaluation, and enforcement efforts.” As the researchers, who teach a wide range of relevant subjects including Public Health, Criminology, Sociology, Medicine, Economics and Public Policy, point out, Biden’s efforts are being seriously hampered by the Congressional ban on gun violence research.


Public health researchers and others began studying gun violence in the late 1980s in response to surging homicides rates, but by 1996 the NRA decided to shut down what it called “anti-gun propaganda.” Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas) sponsored legislation that stripped $2.6 million from the budget of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—the same amount it had spent on gun research the previous year. Although Congress later restored the funds, it barred federal funding “to advocate or promote gun control,” which has been interpreted to ban funding of any research into gun violence, regardless of the expected outcome.


With virtually no contemporary research because of the ban, there is little or no scientific evidence regarding what steps might work to curb gun-related violence, the scientists said. The NRA, however, is happy to point out that there is no science proving that gun control works, regardless of the reasons for that.


By way of comparison, motor vehicle accidents kill about as many people in the U.S. each year as firearms do, but an entire federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has an annual budget of more than $60 million to fund its stated mission of reducing fatalities, injuries and costs associated with auto accidents.


Last summer, former Rep. Dickey changed his mind on the issue, writing in an Op-Ed 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.”

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Scientists Urge End to Limits on Gun Safety Research (by Peter Henderson, Reuters)

How Congress Blocked Research on Gun Violence: The ugly campaign by the NRA to Shut down Studies at the CDC (by Paul D. Thacker, Slate)

Open Letter to Vice President Joe Biden (pdf)

Firearms Topical Working Group Meeting Summary 2011 (National Institute of Justice)


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