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Why Won’t Congress Allow Research of Gun Violence?

The Dickey Amendment and the defunding of firearms research have profoundly affected the nation’s knowledge of gun violence, turning many talented scientists away from the topic, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

“Scientists get invested in how they’re going to spend their careers, and they need funding to support those careers,” Webster said. “If the federal government signaled that yes, gun violence is a big problem, we’re going to have a long-term investment in better understanding that problem and what we can do to prevent it, you’d have a lot more scientists involved and we’d know a lot more than we do now,” he explained.

“Right now there’s only a handful of researchers who have dedicated a significant portion of their careers on this problem, which is just mind-boggling when you think about where it ranks as a public health problem, not to mention a broader social concern,” Webster added.

Some research has continued, thanks to private funding, Webster said. He cited a recent study that showed mandatory background checks for firearms purchases can save many lives by reducing the number of homicides and suicides, and also by keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.

But Webster, Benjamin and Hemenway rattled off a long list of research topics that have not been pursued, including:

  • Whether firearms as a consumer product can be made safer. “What should the trigger pull be on a firearm so that a kid can’t use it?” Benjamin said. “Is there a way to create a firearm so it can’t be altered beyond the purpose for which the gun was made?”
  • The extent of nonfatal gunshot wounds. “Our systems are not really set up to track these events,” Webster said, adding that an estimated three or four nonfatal injuries are believed to occur for every gun-related fatality.
  • The effectiveness of firearms training programs. “We know virtually nothing about gun training,” Hemenway said. “What is being taught? Can we make it better? Should there be mandatory gun training?”
  • The role of the underground firearms market. “We need to know more about where those guns are and how individuals most prone to use those guns inappropriately might access them,” Webster said.
  • The best ways to prevent gun-related suicides. “Almost two-thirds of all fatalities with guns in the United States are suicides,” Webster said. “There’s been very little research examining what’s the most effective way to separate an individual in crisis from a gun.”

These questions and more could be answered with a push from the federal government, Webster said.

He compared gun research to that conducted on motor vehicle safety and HIV. “You had large and long-term investment of the federal government,” Webster said. “They recognized these as big problems that kill lots of Americans.”

Obama’s executive order regarding research on gun safety technology could prove a first step in that direction, Hemenway noted. The president directed the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security to conduct or sponsor research into technology that would make guns less able to discharge accidentally or be stolen.

“A few years ago I wrote a book entitled ‘While We Were Sleeping: Success Stories in Injury and Violence Prevention.’ It provided 64 documented successes where injury or violence has been successfully reduced,” Hemenway wrote in an editorial on Obama’s announcement. “The vast majority of successes entailed changing technology rather than changing human behavior. The former is much easier to accomplish and more cost-effective.”

From such investment, people with HIV, for instance, now live longer and it costs less to care for them. And, graduated driver’s licenses have saved the lives of countless young drivers by preventing them from driving at night and with other teens in the car, he said.

“If funding is re-established, things would not change overnight,” Webster said. “But goodness, this is a long-term thing. The longer we wait, the more deaths will accumulate.”

By Dennis Thompson, HealthDay

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