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[Nate Kitch for The Trace]

How We Fix This

Gun Violence Researchers Find Their Field at a Crossroads

Private funding is attracting new scholars and new ideas, but scientists say federal dollars remain the missing ingredient.

A decade into her career as a firearm violence researcher, Dr. Emmy Betz was warned away from the field from veteran colleagues. “I definitely got the recommendation from well-meaning mentors to be careful and not put all my eggs in this basket, because funding was going to be difficult,” she recalled.

Today, Betz says she’s glad she ignored their advice, well-intentioned though it may have been. She is the cofounder of the Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition and an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, where she has published papers on gun suicide and firearm access and dementia. Money for her studies has not been easy to come by. But an infusion of private dollars, coupled with allocations from several state governments, is slowly expanding gun violence research, drawing in fresh energy, new ideas, and the kinds of cross-disciplinary work that can broaden understanding of a challenging problem.

“It’s changing,” Betz said. “It’s great to see lots of new, early career folks entering the field. There’s a bigger chance for success now.”

In July, the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, a nonpartisan organization run by the RAND Corporation, a global public policy think tank, awarded $9.8 million for 17 research grants. Funding for the grants came from Arnold Ventures, a Houston-based philanthropic organization. Winning applicants were chosen by a nonpartisan board and will investigate an array of topics, ranging from background check laws and the role of firearms in domestic violence to gun-carrying by high-risk youth and officer-involved shootings. Collectively, the grants are among the largest awards dispersed for the study of gun violence since 1996, when Republicans in Congress used a budget rider known as the Dickey Amendment to ban federally funded research that would “advocate or promote gun control.”

The National Collaborative’s grants are one of several philanthropic initiatives sinking significant resources into gun violence research. The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation recently calculated that it has given more than $32 million to gun violence studies over the past 25 years. The Kaiser Permanente health system and Massachusetts General Hospital have each made seven-figure commitments to researching the problem. Other funders active on the issue include the California Wellness Foundation, the Fund for a Safer Future, and the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine. California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington have also launched research initiatives using state resources.

“More people are entering the field, or at least applying for grants to do research, because money is now available,” said Dr. Matthew Miller, a veteran gun violence researcher who is a professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern University and co-directs the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

Among the grants the National Collaborative handed out this summer were four smaller awards to promising graduate students who studied gun violence for their PhD dissertations. Some young doctors are gravitating toward the issue, and scholars from disciplines outside of public health are adding gun-related inquiries to their purview.

Jeremy Travis, executive vice president for criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, has argued that the shift is more than financial.

“The zeitgeist moment is even more intense now, and the urgency is even greater” because of the recent mass shootings, Travis said. “There’s a heightened sense of political accountability to do something.”

But for all the momentum and cautious optimism in the field, gun violence research continues to badly trail the study of similarly frequent causes of death and injury. And as grateful as they are for the largesse of private benefactors, researchers stress that they can’t close the huge knowledge gap until Congress underwrites broad research. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives authorized $50 million in federal funding for gun violence research in a budget bill it passed in June. The Senate will now vote on the proposal, but even after this summer’s spate of mass shootings, the measure faces an uphill battle.

Miller noted that while federal lawmakers pass the buck, 40,000 Americans die of gun violence every year. The victims include thousands of children, many of them killed in shootings that could be prevented, if interventions were better understood. “To depend on private philanthropic largesse to fill the breach, and to continue to do so for the second leading cause of death among kids,” he said, “is to abandon a societal responsibility.”

Advocates for gun violence research at the March For Science rally in Portland, Oregon, on April 14, 2018. [Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images]

As they wait for Washington to come through with federal dollars, scholars have been able to put a number to just how far behind gun violence research lags.

In 2017, a research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that gun violence was the least researched among the top 30 sources of fatalities for Americans. In a particularly striking example, the authors calculated that gun violence research receives about 0.7 percent of the federal funding that sepsis research does, despite killing roughly the same number of Americans each year.

A generation ago, amid the skyrocketing homicide rates of the early 1990s, gun violence was beginning to draw more attention from scholars looking for solutions. That’s when the National Rifle Association and pro-gun allies in Congress worked together to choke off the research boomlet.

“The Dickey Amendment turned off a spigot of resources just as the field of research was beginning to bloom,” said Ted Alcorn, an associate at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Alcorn authored an analysis for JAMA Internal Medicine that found that publications of firearm violence studies in scholarly journals fell by 64 percent during the decade and a half after the restriction on federal funding went into effect.

The small group of scientists producing those studies have “labored at the margins,” as Alcorn puts it, scraping together research money and often toiling without compensation to complete projects. “We’re donating a lot of time just to keep work going,” said Miller. Over the course of his career, he’s had to pick up more lucrative pharmacoepidemiological research funded by the National Institutes of Health to offset the lack of dollars for studying gun violence.

In March 2018, as the March for Our Lives movement increased pressure on legislators, the House clarified the strictures of the Dickey Amendment, stating that the rider is not an outright prohibition on researching the causes of gun violence. But the clarification did not come with earmarked funding. And the amendment’s chilling effect persists, as NPR illustrated via a recent Freedom of Information Act request.

NPR found that a “preventing suicide” fact sheet released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2018 includes no references to guns or firearms, instead favoring a vague directive to “reduce access to lethal means.” That, despite the fact that guns are the most lethal means for committing suicide. The FOIA also uncovered internal texts between CDC employees advising each other not to use the “f-word,” meaning firearms.

Dr. Mark Rosenberg was running the CDC’s National Center for Injury Control and Prevention when Congress cut off federal dollars for researching gun violence. How little we know about which firearm policies work and which don’t is “really, really frightening,” he said. He pointed to “Gun Policy In America,” RAND’s review of existing studies on the impact of gun policies, which the think tank published last year. On key policy questions — assault weapon bans, concealed carry laws, background checks, mental illness-related firearm prohibitions — RAND found that there have not been enough scholarly assessments to know how well the measures work.

“It tells you what the result of our government having stopped this research 20 years ago is,” Rosenberg said. “The strongest evidence is relatively weak.”

Mark Rosenberg, the former director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, outside his Atlanta home on June 28, 2016. [AP Photo/Lisa Marie Pane]

More funding would enable researchers to update studies last conducted in the era of the dot-matrix printer, and run them with larger cohort sizes. It could also facilitate new, more multifaceted approaches to the issue. Miller said additional funding would have allowed him to do more qualitative research on safe storage messaging aimed at people who live in gun-owning homes, to see which messages and messengers are “are most effective in getting people living in homes with guns to consider the risks and benefits of keeping guns in their homes.” He said he would also seek collaborations with researchers outside of public health, including behavioral scientists, to assess gun violence interventions.

Having reliable funding to commit to long-term studies would make it easier to convince top-notch researchers in other fields to devote time and energy to gun research, he added.

As it is, the limited grants for gun violence research have tended to go to “the usual suspects,” as Meagan Cahill, the National Collaborative’s research director, called them. This handful of scientists — most of them older white men — have long track records of producing journal articles, which gives funders confidence they’ll see results for their money.“When funds are scarce, it’s harder for funders to take a risk on new people and new topics,” Cahill said. “Part of what we’re trying to do with this collaborative is to expand the field.”

Tami Sullivan is one of its new entrants. An associate professor of psychiatry and director of family violence research at Yale School of Medicine, she was awarded the largest of the collaborative’s 17 grants, $2.1 million for a study capturing the experiences of female domestic violence victims with partners who own firearms.

Sullivan has decades of experience studying domestic violence. But this is her first gun violence research grant, despite having tried for years to get funding for research related to the nexus of firearms and domestic violence. “It’s very difficult to make that happen,” she said.

Cahill points to a Center for Court Innovation study on the socio-cultural roots of gun use as another example of the kind of innovative but speculative project that the infusion of private funding is making possible.

Both it and Sullivan’s domestic violence research will entail collecting information from hard-to-reach populations on sensitive issues. Those interview efforts are expensive, but they have the potential to yield “amazing, rich data,” Cahill said — and the brand new knowledge that has been in short supply on gun violence.

Rosenberg is optimistic that Congress will step in to give gun violence research the boost that private funding alone cannot fuel. “I think increasingly people are starting to see the value of research and the way that it can get us out of the deadlock and start solving the problem,” he said. He called the House’s passage of $50 million for gun violence and safety research, split evenly between the CDC and the NIH, “a big breakthrough.”

But the Senate remains the hurdle. The successive mass shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio have had some Republicans in the upper chamber expressing openness to modest gun reforms. But Missouri Republican Roy Blunt, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, was notably cool toward unlocking federal dollars for the study of gun violence. In a statement last month, he characterized gun violence research as a “partisan priority” that would be too controversial for his panel to agree on. With Congress now back from its August recess, the situation in the Senate remains fluid. “This is shifting literally day by day,” said Travis of the state of play about appropriations funding.

Meanwhile, gun violence researchers welcome their new colleagues, push forward with their work, and remain frustrated by the questions they can’t afford to explore.

“The arc of funding is long, but it’s bending toward more firearm-related related research,” Miller said.

He paused before adding, “I don’t know when it will start to become anything approaching adequate.”

Two of the funders mentioned in this article — the Joyce Foundation and Fund for a Safer Future — have given grants to The Trace. Additionally, one of the sources quoted, Ted Alcorn, formerly worked for Everytown for Gun Safety, whose 501c3 Support Fund also makes grants to The Trace. Here’s where you can read our editorial independence policy and our policy on donor transparency.