Funding to study the causes and consequences of gun violence is so scarce that one researcher has been pushed into funding her research through online crowdsourcing. You can address a thank-you note to the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Bisakha Sen is an economist at Ohio State who’s previously studied the relationship between background check laws and homicide rates. She found that states with background check laws tended to also have fewer gun homicides and suicides, a conclusion supported by other investigations into rates of gun violence.
Sen wanted to follow up by conducting a similar correlation study examining links between other gun policies and indices of gun culture (rates of hunting and gun ownership) and rates of crime and violence. Unable to find any traditional sources of funding, she turned to Microryza, an online funding site similar to Kickstarter. Though the Professor estimated the study would cost $25,000 to complete, she’s only raised $12,230 by May 31st, the original deadline (it’s been extended by six weeks).
While Sen’s solution may be novel, her predicament is anything but. Shockingly few — less than twenty, by one count — academics in the United States focus their research agenda on gun violence. That’s because, in the mid-90s, the NRA helped push through legislation preventing the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from funding any scientific research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” President Obama, arguing that research on gun violence isn’t the same as advocating for gun control, has ordered the CDC to resume studying the public health effects of gun violence, but that can’t fully circumvent Congress’ gag order.
In practice, this edict has crippled research on gun violence. The federal government funds roughly 60 percent of all academic research, meaning that access to federal funding can strongly affect the research area individual scholars might be able to pursue. As a consequence, gun researchers are few and far between, meaning that we know far less about what sort of policies can best save lives than we might otherwise.
Sen’s research is not without its critics. Garen Wintemute, one of the country’s most respected gun violence scholars and no friend to the NRA, worries that Sen’s methodology can’t distinguish between causation and correlation with respect to variables like rates of gun ownership and weak gun laws. Nevertheless, the broader underlying problem that her fundraising strategy reveals — the NRA-supported and Congressionally-imposed restrictions on academic research — remains.