Mass shootings have prompted agony, anger and angst in the United States, causing citizens to ask why these events continue to happen and what can be done to stop them.
There are precious few answers to those questions, and there’s at least one strong reason why: For nearly two decades, the U.S. government has declined to fund research into gun violence.
Without that funding, experts say, crucial questions on gun safety and gun violence have been left unanswered.
“People will tell you that we’ve got lots of laws regarding guns, and they’re just not being enforced,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “In my mind, that argument falls short, because we’re not doing the research to evaluate how those laws are doing, to see how to best enforce them or how they should be tweaked if there’s a hole in those laws.”
Other important topics that have been left unstudied include design changes that could make guns safer, the number of nonfatal firearm injuries that occur each year, and the effectiveness of safety training for firearms, experts said.
“There are so many things we just don’t know anything about,” said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center in Boston. “Any gun-related topic you list, there are huge gaps in our knowledge.”
President Barack Obama’s recent executive orders issued on firearms will do little to resolve this problem, Hemenway added. Obama’s orders focused on improved background checks and effective enforcement of existing gun laws, but only contained a single mention of research to improve gun safety technology.
“Congress controls the funding and they recently eliminated funds in the President’s budget for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) for gun research,” Hemenway said.
What many Americans might not know, Benjamin said, is that the trillion-dollar spending bill passed by Congress and signed by Obama in December retained a ban on firearms research that dates to the 1990s.
Elected officials renewed the ban despite then-recent mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., and Colorado Springs, Colo., and an outcry from public health officials.
A Dec. 16 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that more than 33,000 people died from gunshot injuries and more than 84,000 were wounded in 2013, according to CDC statistics.
“If any other public health menace were consistently killing and maiming so many Americans, without research, recommendations, and action by the CDC, the public would be outraged,” the journal editorial said.
The research freeze also continued over the objections of the politician it’s named after, former U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas. In 1998, what became known as the Dickey Amendment effectively blocked the CDC from conducting future research into gun violence.
But Dickey now thinks the nation shouldn’t have to choose between reducing gun-violence injuries and safeguarding gun ownership. And he very publicly said so in a Dec. 1 letter to the House Democrats’ task force on gun violence prevention.
“I took part in cutting off gun violence research dollars at the federal level because of what was considered a misapplication of the dollars by the CDC,” Dickey wrote. “I have recently expressed my regrets that we didn’t continue that research with the provision that nothing shall be done in this project to infringe the rights of gun ownership as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution in the Second Amendment.”
Dickey believes research into the causes of gun violence can save lives just as collision research by highway officials has done. Their investigation didn’t result in the elimination of automobiles, but led to the placement of concrete barriers that keep drivers from veering into oncoming traffic.
“In the same way, scientific research should help answer how we can best reduce gun violence,” Dickey wrote. “Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution.”