As part of a $1.4 trillion spending plan that was approved last month, Congress — for the first time in 20 years — approved federal funding for gun research. The $25 million, to be split between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, is not a large sum compared with federal allocations for research into other things that kill and maim Americans, but it is an important step in the right direction.
Many overall gun violence trends in America 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 most recent mortality report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet questions remain, and there has been a chill on gun research for decades. In 1996, Congress passed a budget provision prohibiting the CDC from using federal funds to “advocate for or promote gun control” and later expanded the provision to include the National Institutes of Health. Federal agencies interpreted the prohibition to forbid nearly all types of research into gun violence.
Congress began to reverse this prohibition in 2018, when a spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump included language clarifying that the CDC has the authority to conduct research into the causes of gun violence. The language was helpful, but without funding, the research remained stalled.
The $25 million approved in December removes a final hurdle.
Research can now begin to answer why gun violence is so prevalent in America, and more importantly, what works to reverse these deadly trends. Do waiting periods for gun purchases reduce suicides or homicides? What about age restrictions? Can smart gun technology, which has existed for years but been stalled, reduce accidental shootings?
“Given the paucity of funding for gun research and thus the lack of knowledge in this area, almost anything related to guns and the use of guns would be worthwhile to study,” Steven Barkan, a sociology professor at the University of Maine who has done extensive research on firearms and public health, told the BDN.
He emphasizes the need to know more about gun safety measures, such as required training and smart guns that only fire when used by their owner, rather than gun ownership restrictions. With more than 300 million firearms in America, working to ensure they are used and stored safely is likely to be more effective than restricting gun ownership.
With this in mind, new research should help policymakers focus on initiatives that will be most effective.
RAND, a nonprofit research and analysis institution, reviewed thousands of studies on gun policies. It found that there was scant evidence, in most cases, about the outcomes of these policies. For example, it found no studies on the efficacy of gun free zones or lost or stolen gun reporting requirements. Studies about the impact of background checks, concealed carry laws, minimum age requirements and other restrictions on mass shootings were inconclusive, RAND found in its assessment, which was released in 2018.
The group did find supportive evidence that laws aimed at limiting children’s access to guns did reduce suicides and unintentional injuries and death. It found moderate evidence that background checks could reduce suicides and violent crimes, and that “stand your ground laws” increase homicides.
The major takeaway from the RAND review, however, is that much more thorough analysis is needed to determine what laws and restrictions can best protect public health — and if some laws and firearm restrictions might actually make our communities less safe — while also maintaining 2nd Amendment rights.
America’s debate over gun violence — and what to do about it — can be greatly improved with better information. Focused research on what works to increase firearms safety can help fill information gaps to guide workable and effective policies.