If Congress will lift the National Rifle Association (NRA)-funded ban on federal funding for gun research, there’s a clear research agenda for answering life-and-death questions about gun violence in the United States, according to a cross-ideological Institute of Medicine (IOM) panel.
The panel, convened in response to President Obama’s directive that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) develop a plan for resuming research on gun violence, was tasked with developing a list of questions about gun violence that have yet to be sufficiently examined by current research. Since the mid-90s, NRA-supported legislation has stripped the CDC of $2.5 million dollars in grant money (the exact amount devoted to gun research) and stipulated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
The effects of this ban have been dramatic. Federal funding makes up 60 percent of all support for academic research, meaning that blanket ban can cripple research in a field as specific as the effects of gun violence. Indeed, fewer than 20 academics today (by one count) are actively working on a problem that results in 32,000 dead Americans per year.
As consequence, the IOM panel reports, “Basic data about gun possession, distribution, ownership, acquisition, and storage are lacking… Data that do exist are weak, making it virtually impossible to answer fundamental questions about occurrence and risk factors, or to effectively evaluate programs intended to reduce violence and harm.”
The report identifies 14 urgent “priority” areas for federal research, each of which encompasses a series of different questions about gun violence. For instance, questions that fall under the “Improve understanding of whether reducing criminal access to legally purchased guns reduces firearm violence” category include “Are there methods to enhance the reporting of stolen guns in order to reduce illegal access?” and “To what degree would mandatory reporting of transfer of private ownership of guns be effective in reducing illegal access?”
Some of the unanswered questions are even more basic. The panel suggests, for instance, that we’re not sure “to what degree can or would prospective suicidal users of firearms substitute other methods of suicide” or “what characteristics differentiate mass shootings that were prevented from those that were carried out?”
The IOM report’s authors come from across the ideological spectrum. Its members range from Gary Kleck, one of the scholars most-cited by opponents of stronger gun laws, to Susan Sorenson, who once praised a book for “carefully and dispassionately eviscerat[ing] the research that concludes that more permissive laws about carrying concealed weapons will reduce crime.” But all could agree that the lack of basic research on “public health aspects of firearm violence” means that “makers will be left to debate controversial policies without scientifically sound evidence about their potential effects.”
Despite the gaping holes in gun research, we have strong evidence for a few claims. All things being equal, counties with more guns have more gun crime. And the best available evidence suggests that background checks significantly reduce gun homicides.
The title of this piece has been changed to reflect the fact that the Institute of Medicine is a non-profit organization that is not formally part of the federal government.