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The Knowledge Gap

Gun Violence Researchers Cheer Rare Federal Funding

But they say “we shouldn’t kid ourselves” that the $3 million in Justice Department grants are enough to close a yawning knowledge gap.

Federal dollars for research into gun violence are hard to come by, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reluctant to step over a 20-year Congressional restriction on funding firearms studies.

A rare bright spot emerged last week, however, when the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) awarded more than $3.3 million to five private institutions for firearms research. The funding will support inquiries into some of the most pressing questions regarding gun violence, including what leads some young people to carry guns, which state laws might reduce or increase firearms deaths, and how often civilians are shot by law enforcement officers.

The funding is encouraging, “but it’s still very small potatoes,” says David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, whose plan for a study of police shootings was awarded more than $650,000. Hemenway said he applied for the funding after the NIJ, the Department of Justice’s research arm, put out word earlier this year that it wanted to back more gun-related projects.

“It’s a nice grant,” Hemenway says. “But in terms of the size of the gun problem in the United States, the total amount of federal research dollars is minuscule compared to HIV or obesity.”

Researchers have been stymied by the scant federal dollars available for supporting research into firearms and gun violence. The CDC — with $5 billion in funds to give away annually — has avoided the issue since 1996, when Republicans in Congress, spurred by the National Rifle Association, passed a legislative amendment stipulating that none of the agency’s budget can be used to “advocate or promote gun control.” The agency fears that any perceived violation of that rule could result in cuts to its overall funding, though critics close to the CDC say it could do more without risking running afoul of the provision.

In 2012, the National Institute of Health became subject to its own restrictions on gun violence research, but has nonetheless cautiously supported some new studies on firearm-related deaths and injuries. Over the past four years, the agency has awarded a total of $3.2 million for gun violence research. As The Trace has reported, a single cancer study can cost twice as much. (The NIJ did not respond to requests for comment.)

“While $3 million worth of research is going to contribute, it’s not going to solve the problem and we shouldn’t kid ourselves,” says Mark Rosenberg, who served as the founding director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in the 1990s. “Putting very small amounts of money into research isn’t going to make a very big difference with this problem. It’s a problem of life and death, and we should treat it as such.”

Every year, more than 118,000 Americans are injured by firearms, resulting in more than 33,000 deaths.

Researcher Karen Abram and her team at Northwestern University were awarded $425,000 by the NIJ to investigate if an adolescent’s exposure to firearms can affect the likelihood of being shot or committing a gun crime later in life. They hope to identify what factors — like marriage, education, or a change in socioeconomic status — might alter a child’s path toward safer outcomes.

Abram says she pursued the grant because no similar research exists. “We looked in the literature and there are very few studies — certainly longitudinal studies — investigating firearms violence over time,” she says. “A lot of researchers were excited about this solicitation by the DOJ.”

Calls for reinstating government-backed gun violence research have come from as high up as the White House. Shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, President Barack Obama issued an executive order instructing the CDC to relaunch gun studies. The agency ignored the call. In his last three budget requests, Obama has also requested $10 million specifically for the CDC to study the issue. Each was refused by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

In April, a consortium of 141 medical organizations sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to restore funding for gun violence research at the CDC.

Linda Degutis is one former CDC official who believes the agency’s aversion to gun violence research won’t change soon. She resigned from her post as Injury Center director in 2014 over her employer’s unwillingness to study firearms. “It may be that perhaps the CDC isn’t the place to put a lot of the funding for this kind of research,” she says. “It may be that it’s better to have it in other agencies and the DOJ is certainly one place.”

Degutis now thinks that proponents of federally funded studies of gun violence might find more success advocating to shore up other government resources that can be utilized by academic and private researchers, pointing to the National Violent Death Reporting System as one example. Widely considered the most comprehensive surveillance program for violent deaths,  NVDRS nonetheless currently does not operate in 10 states. In March, researchers using the program found that the FBI and CDC have been drastically undercounting the number of fatal police shootings. Degutis argues that the program would be an even more powerful tool if expanded to all 50 states and the territories.

But other experts, like Susan Sorenson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies violence and firearms, aren’t ready to give up on the CDC. She says the agency needs to work in conjunction with the DOJ and NIH: The agencies have different missions, and can only do so much on their own.

“There’s opportunity for wonderful collaborations across these federal agencies,” Sorenson says. “But you need to have all the partners at the table to really address these issues.”

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