Despite strong public support for universal background checks for firearm purchases and presidential support for red flag laws, we are not optimistic about Congress passing legislation to restrict gun access or firepower.
But, one thing both parties should agree upon is the need to study gun violence.
There is a glimmer of hope. An omnibus funding bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March 2018 included language clarifying that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the authority to conduct research into the causes of gun violence.
However, it did not include funding for that research. Congress has to approve the funds for the CDC’s research activities, so the language change is meaningless without specified funds.
CDC Director Robert Redfield said the agency is ready to do this research, but it needs money from Congress to fund it. “Basically, what we need to do is get a funding mechanism for Congress to instruct us to do that research,” he told CBS News last year.
There is progress on this front. In June, the U.S. House passed a measure to allocate $50 million toward research into gun violence and safety. The money would go to the CDC and National Institutes of Health. Maine Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree voted for the bill.
Procedurally, the Senate could consider a similar bill, which Sen. Angus King cosponsored, if Congress passes a budget, rather than a continuing resolution this fall, to fund government operations. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stopped other gun-related bills from being considered in that chamber.
“In order to make good policy, you need good data — but right now, federal law and inadequate funding severely limit our ability to collect and analyze data related to the many facets of gun violence, making it harder to understand and combat the loss of more than 30,000 American lives per year,” King said in a statement to the BDN.
For decades there has been a chill on gun research. In 1996, Congress passed a budget provision prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using federal funds to “advocate for or promote gun control” and later expanded the provision to include the National Institutes of Health. To prevent criticism from groups such as the NRA, agencies interpreted the prohibition to forbid nearly all types of research into gun violence. A backer of the original legislation now says it was a mistake.
“If we had somehow gotten the research going, we could have somehow found a solution to the gun violence without there being any restrictions on the Second Amendment,” former Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Arkansas, told the Huffington Post in 2015.
In addition to voting for the measure that clarified that the CDC had the authority to study the causes of gun violence, Sen. Susan Collins “has long endorsed the creation of a National Commission on Mass Violence, which would convene experts to study all aspects of violent attacks,” Annie Clark, the senator’s spokeswoman, told the BDN.
Such research is long overdue. The statistics are well known: Mass shootings are exponentially more common in the U.S. than in other developed countries, as are gun-related deaths in general. Suicides are more common in homes where guns are present and in states with high gun ownership rates. Women who are victims of domestic violence are eight times more likely to be killed by their partner if there is a gun in the home. In 2017, guns accounted for nearly as many U.S. deaths — 60 percent of them suicides — as traffic crashes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And, perhaps most disturbing of all, a toddler shot someone on a weekly basis in the U.S. last year.
Research can begin to answer why, and more importantly, what works to reverse these deadly trends. Do waiting periods for gun purchases reduce suicides or homicides? What about age restrictions? What impact have Australia’s gun buybacks had on shootings in that country?
Smart gun technology, which has existed for years but stalled because of threats, also warrants further study. With smart technology, guns could only be fired by a recognized owner. Does this reduce accidental shootings?
America’s debate over gun violence — and what to do about it — can be greatly improved with better information. Focused research on gun violence will help fill information gaps to guide workable and effective policies to reduce it.