Gun Violence Research Receives Federal Funding for First Time in 20 Years

December 24, 2019

On Friday, December 20, President Trump signed 2 spending packages totaling $1.4 trillion to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year. The package allows federal funds to be allocated to the National Institutes of Health and CDC for the purpose of conducting research on gun violence for the first time in 2 decades.

On Friday, December 20, President Trump signed two spending packages totaling $1.4 trillion to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year. The package allows federal funds to be allocated to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and CDC for the purpose of conducting research on gun violence for the first time in two decades.

The allocation marks a rare instance of bipartisan cooperation on a historically contested issue.

“This funding is a significant step to combat the gun violence epidemic and rash of school shootings facing our nation. It has been a long time coming,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Previous federal research into gun violence has been largely prevented due to the 1996 Dickey Amendment. The amendment’s language prohibited the federal government to advocate for or promote gun control, effectively freezing research into the crisis that costs the US 38,000 lives every year.

In 2018 the amendment’s language was modified to allow the CDC to conduct research into the causes of gun violence, but no funding was provided at that time. Former Arkansas representative Jay Dickey has in recent years come out against the restrictions outlined in the eponymous amendment.

In an interview with NPR in 2015, Dickey laments the time lost in potential research. He said, “All this time that we have had, we would’ve found a solution, in my opinion. And I think it’s a shame that we haven’t.”

The newly approved budget will allow $25 million to be split equally between the NIH and CDC, and will be used to conduct research on preventing gun related deaths and injuries, according to NPR.

The federal government has yet to classify gun violence as a public health issue, leaving research on the subject to fall largely into the hands of private organizations. Although the amendment still survives, this new allocation will allow the research of gun violence to be conducted using the same parameters and scrutiny as other public health issues, such as food and motor vehicle safety.

According to Brady United, a campaign to reduce gun violence in America, nearly 1500 children and teens between the ages of 1 and 17 die from gun violence every year. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America and the leading cause of gun deaths in the country. Each year, 22,274 people of all ages die from gun-inflicted suicide.

Government agencies have in the past allocated funding for suicide prevention research. In 2018, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, awarded $61.6 million in grants for suicide prevention funding. One recipient was The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Disaster Distress Helpline. However, with this step toward treating gun violence as a public health issue, the combined efforts and funding of suicide prevention and gun violence prevention may lead to more lives saved overall.

Federal researchers will not only aim to save lives with the funds, but also can make a dent in the estimated $229 billion in costs the American economy incurs every year due to gun violence.

The move is welcome among advocates urging for stronger federal intervention to reduce and prevent gun violence in America. One such advocate is the American Public Health Association (APHA).

Georges Benjamin, MD, chief executive officer of the APHA, compared US responses to previous public health crises with the response to gun violence. He argued in 2015 that if the same approaches were utilized across the board to combat public health threats, many lives could be saved.

In an op-ed published in The Guardian, Benjamin wrote:

“Look at what we’ve done to make auto crashes less deadly. In just a decade we cut US highway deaths by 25% — down to a historic low – not by blaming the victims, but by making people safer in their cars, the vehicles themselves safer and the roads and environment safer for cars and people to transit on them. Time and again a public health approach to solving health threats is a proven, evidence-based approach to improving health and preventing injury. That approach looks upstream to prevent bad things from happening downstream, and then doing everything possible to prevent them.”

In the years since, the APHA has been a strong advocate for gun violence prevention, publishing numerous studies outlining potential policy solutions and advocating for change.

One benefit of adopting a public health approach to gun violence is that it allows researchers to take an epidemiological view of the issue. As explained in a recent 538 article, “Public health research asks questions about how gun violence in a community affects other kinds of risks — stress-related illnesses, for instance, or educational outcomes.”

Although the allocation of $25 million is only half of what Democrats had initially asked for, it serves as an important first step to those encouraging intervention at the federal level.

“This is a very important accomplishment and a tribute to strong advocacy on the part of the broad firearm safety community. We anticipate that this is the beginning of federal fiscal support that will grow over time as the health impact and societal value of the research is demonstrated,” said Benjamin in an email exchange with The American Journal of Managed Care®. Compared with the previous allocation of $2.6 million in 1996, this is a significant increase. “We do know that the results of that research effort were significant at that minimal funding level and we learned a lot about the risks of firearms in the home, for example.”

The CDC and NIH have not disclosed their plans for the funds, but Benjamin outlined possible initiatives.

“I would start with the research agenda articulated in the 2013 report of the Institute of Medicine, now the National Academy of Medicine. In this report research priorities were recommended in five broad areas: defining the characteristics of firearm violence; better understanding risk and protective factors; interventions that prevent firearm violence; the role of video games and other media; and the impact of firearm safety technology (Priorities for research to reduce the threat of firearm-related violence, IOM, NRC, 2013),” he said.

Regardless of the action taken, ideal outcomes of federal research would include reduced rates of gun related deaths and injuries, along with a broader understanding of the gun violence epidemic in America.

“Federal funding is a catalyst for additional private sector funding,” Benjamin said. “It builds core research capacity and tends to fund high quality researchers. Federal funding for research is a statement that the research is of broad national importance. In the end one hopes the results will inform ways to make firearms safer as a tool; people safer with their firearms; and society safer with firearms and people in it. The health goal is meaningful reductions in both morbidity and mortality from firearms; both unintentional and intentional.”

Down the line, Benjamin hopes the government will increase funding to “at least the $50 million level originally proposed, next year.” In the meantime, Americans will have to wait and see what results are produced by this allocation, and whether this instance marks a turning point for advocates and victims pushing for increased federal intervention.