In one swoop, a new $50 million initiative to boost funding for gun violence research is poised to eclipse the federal government’s meager efforts to understand the epidemic. Experts in the field say the fund, created by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, could advance understanding of the causes and effects of gun violence and inform public policy.
The private push, if fully funded, would more than double what the United States government spent on gun violence research over a recent 10-year period, according a 2017 academic paper that sought to calculate the yawning shortfall in federal studies of an issue that is among the country’s leading causes of injury and death.
The new reality for federal gun violence research is the same as the old one: Congress hasn't stepped up to pay for it.
The investment came together quickly, considering its size. Jeremy Travis, the foundation’s vice president of criminal justice, said he and his colleagues were motivated by the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
“The question we were wrestling with is, what can this foundation do to address the issues of gun violence given the newly energized conversation about how awful this problem is?” Travis said. “We support research. Federal research has been basically missing. The evidence base for good policy is basically missing.”
The Arnold Foundation has contributed $20 million and is looking to raise an additional $30 million to run a grant project that it is calling the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research. An advisory board, which has not yet been selected, will evaluate proposals from researchers and dispense the funds over the next five years. The RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan public policy institute, will oversee day-to-day operations.
“It can only be good news,” said Deborah Azrael, associate director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center. “Anybody who’s doing this work knows there’s been so little money available.”
Congress has long declined to fund gun violence research. Since 1996, the Dickey Amendment, a Republican-sponsored rider to the bill that provided funding for the Centers for Disease Control, has stipulated that the federal health research organization may not use money “to advocate or promote gun control.” Public health researchers believe the amendment does not impose an outright ban, but parsing its language is moot: the CDC almost never awards grants on the subject and Congress hasn’t appropriated any funds for the agency to study it.
“It’s very clear that the federal government has not stepped up to support the research that’s commensurate with the scale of the problem,” said Travis. “Compare this public health emergency to any other public health emergency facing the country, say HIV/AIDS, or traffic deaths, or cancer, or the opioid epidemic. The CDC budget for this is zero.”
Travis said the fund’s agenda will be informed by conclusions reached by the National Academy of Sciences after President Barak Obama asked that body to identify research priorities following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. In its findings, the National Academy focused on five areas for deeper inquiry: characteristics of gun violence; risk factors that increase the likelihood of shootings; prevention; safety technology, and the influence of media.
Azrael already has ideas for projects the Arnold Foundation money could support. They include improving the quality of data on gun violence, which could be useful to academics years after the $50 million has been spent. Or sponsoring years-long studies of social groups affected by gun violence. Or clinical trials evaluating the effectiveness of violence reduction programs.
“Those eat up money quickly,” she said.