Doctors and advocates are hopeful that new funding for federal agencies to study gun violence will prove to be the first step in preventing mass shootings, suicides and other firearm deaths.
For the first time in 23 years, a government spending bill will set aside funds — in this case, $25 million — for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) to collect data on what the American Medical Association has called a public health crisis.
Activists are optimistic that getting fresh data will provide policymakers with the information needed to reduce gun deaths.
“It’s a step in the direction of us taking proactive measures to protect Americans,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy for Brady United Against Gun Violence. “It’s taken us too long to get here. My hope is this is one more milestone in the long road ahead.”
Government funding for gun violence research came to a halt in 1996, when Congress passed an amendment to a spending bill blocking federal agencies from advocating for gun control.
As a result, research projects at the CDC and NIH were stopped. The move also had a chilling effect on other researchers, creating a void in what experts know about gun violence in the U.S.
But a $1.4 trillion government spending bill that the Senate is poised to send to President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House counsel didn’t take lead on Trump letter to Pelosi: reports Trump endorses Riggleman in Virginia House race Lisa Page responds to ‘vile’ Trump attacks: ‘Being quiet isn’t making this go away’ MORE this week for his signature includes a deal reached by Democrats and Republicans to restore aspects of that funding.
The National Rifle Association is not opposing the spending bill because it still prohibits federal agencies from funding research that promotes gun control.
The inclusion of the spending provision comes after other actions aimed at reducing gun violence have stalled on Capitol Hill. House Democrats passed a bill this year that would require universal background checks, but it has not received a vote in the Senate and President Trump opposes it.
Studying the issue but without promoting gun control could help break through the partisan gridlock that keeps Congress and state legislatures from passing measures addressing mass shootings, said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who oversaw gun violence research at the CDC before Congress cut funding decades ago.
“We’re in a hyper-polarized position, where both sides view with extreme skepticism what the other side suggests, so we really need scientific evidence of what’s safe and what’s effective,” Rosenberg said.
Some of the questions that need answering, Rosenberg said, are: “What are the causes? What works to prevent it? And how do you do it?”
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Rosenberg said researchers also don’t have good answers to questions like: Who are the victims? How are they getting shot and with what kinds of firearms? Where did the weapons come from? What are the relationships between shooters and victims? What’s the role of mental illness, drugs and alcohol? What is the relationship between domestic violence and gun violence?
While some states and municipalities have passed measures aimed at reducing gun violence, a dearth of government research has prevented policymakers from determining whether their efforts have been effective.
“The CDC still has the largest collection of violence prevention professionals of any place in the world,” Rosenberg said. “People are ready to work on this question. And they can do it in an absolutely objective, high-quality, scientific way.”
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the CDC and NIH could also study ways to reduce suicides with firearms and how to make guns safer.
Public health experts have long urged policymakers to treat gun violence as a public health issue, like motor vehicle deaths or lung cancer. Smoking rates and automobile fatalities declined after researchers studied the issues and found methods of intervention that worked, like taxes on cigarettes and mandatory seat belt laws.
“We recognize gun violence is a public health issue that must be addressed in that way,” said Dr. Joseph Wright, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics board of directors.
Wright was an investigator at the CDC in 1996 when his study into gun violence came to an end because of the funding ban.
“I have been haunted over the last couple of decades by the work we could have accomplished and, frankly, the deaths and injuries that could have been prevented if we were able to continue that work,” he said.
Ever since funding was cut in the mid 90s, public health experts have fought to get federal funding for research. Those efforts got a major boost this year when Democrats took control of the House.
Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroCongress reaches deal to fund gun violence research for first time in decades The Hill’s Morning Report – Busy week: Impeachment, Dem debate and USMCA Trump-Pelosi trade deal creates strife among progressives MORE (D-Conn.), a key health care appropriator, said the funding was one of her top priorities after Democrats retook the House majority in 2018.
Democrats originally sought $50 million, but negotiations with Republicans cut that amount in half. Still, they said they plan to ask for more funding in future spending bills.
“We fought tooth and nail and we won,” DeLauro said. “This funding will help to save lives.”