Information is power, particularly when it comes to gun violence. But for the last two decades, scientists have done little research into what causes gun-related deaths or how they can be prevented or reduced, leaving decisionmakers without the tools they need to make effective policy.
The information deficit started 22 years ago with the “ Dickey amendment” — named after Jay Dickey, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas — that said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can’t use money to “advocate or promote gun control.” Even though it doesn’t explicitly prevent research on gun violence, it has had a chilling effect. Dickey has since said the amendment was a mistake.
People hoped a change would come this winter. Indeed, an omnibus funding bill signed by President Donald Trump in March included a clarification saying that the CDC can conduct research into the causes of gun violence.
However, it didn’t include funding for that research. Congress has to approve the funds for the CDC’s research activities, and the clarification is meaningless without specified funds.
“I’m not particularly optimistic that anything will change,” Daniel Webster, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told NPR recently. Given how slowly Congress has acted in the past, if it acts at all, we’re not particularly optimistic either.
The information void has led others to try to fill in the blanks. The Washington Post, for instance, has done an admirable job tallying gun death numbers and trends after it spent the past year piecing together information from news archives, law enforcement reports, open-source databases, and calls to schools and police departments. Here are some findings:
— More than 210,000 children at 213 schools have been exposed to gun violence during school hours since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.
— Though school shootings remain rare, there have already been 13 in 2018 alone, which is the highest number at this point during any year since 1999.
— The median age of school shooters is 16.
— Of the cases where the source of the gun could be determined, the vast majority of shooters (85 percent) brought them from their own homes or got them from friends or relatives.
— Black students experience school shootings at a disproportionate rate. They make up 16.6 percent of the school population but experience school shootings at twice that rate.
The Post also examined the 151 public mass shootings in which four or more people were killed, starting with Aug. 1, 1966, when a student sniper shot 17 people when he fired on them from the observation deck of a clock tower at the University of Texas. Here’s what The Post found:
— Of the 154 shooters, all but three were male. Most were between the ages of 20 and 49. They killed 1,081 people.
— The shooters obtained most of their weapons without breaking the law. At least 167 weapons were obtained legally, and 50 were obtained illegally. It’s not clear how the rest, 76 weapons, were obtained.
— There were just 25 public mass shootings in the 50 years before the Texas tower shooting. “Since then, the number has risen dramatically, and many of the deadliest shootings have occurred within the past few years,” according to The Post.
These statistics provide a needed look into what has happened in the past. Further research could point to solutions for the future. Congress has an obligation to ensure the fact-finding happens. It should make the research funding a priority.
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