After 20 children and six adults were killed in December 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, President Obama directed agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — through a presidential memorandum — to research gun violence. “Research on gun violence is not advocacy; it is critical public health research that gives all Americans information they need,” Obama said at the time.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) took the president at his word, and over three years, it funded 23 projects related to firearm violence, for about $18 million total, with a goal “to identify evidence-based strategies for preventing violence and incorporating them into clinical and community settings.” NIH’s funding expired and the program ended in January, days before President Trump took office.
After the mass shooting in Las Vegas Sunday, which left 59 people dead, Trump could continue down the road of undoing Obama-era gun regulations post Sandy Hook, or he could reverse course and address the public health crisis. A NIH spokesperson told STAT that the renewal of the funding program “is still under consideration.”
In beginning to fund projects on firearm violence in 2013, the NIH bypassed a congressional directive that prevents federal agencies from advocating or promoting gun control. Congress attached the Dickey Amendment to a 1997 appropriations bill, which didn’t lead to an outright ban on gun violence research but certainly made it more difficult. The amendment was a response to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded study that concluded having a gun at home was associated with a higher risk of homicide.
“I think we need raise awareness that NIH and CDC can’t fund research — this seems like a no-brainer,” Dr. Nina Agrawal, member of the advocacy group Doctors for America, told ThinkProgress. “I went to an event that [New York] Governor Cuomo attended, and told him about this issue and he had no idea.”
There are a lot of gaps in what we know about gun violence, which makes federal-funded research all the more crucial. Daniel Webster, the director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, has been studying gun violence for 25 years and said there are gaps in the research. For example, there hasn’t been large scale research into the underground gun market. There have been a few studies that got private foundation money to look into this in cities like Baltimore, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Orleans. When gun right advocates or lawmakers say “criminals will always find a way to get a gun, well we need to talk to criminals to see if it’s true,” said Webster. He added that the research thus far has largely found this to be untrue because of the risk associated with purchasing a gun in the underground market.
Another example that hinders comprehensive research is the so-called Tiahrt Amendment passed in 2003. This was attached to the Justice Department budget and restricts the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from sharing gun-trace information data to researchers, the public, or local lawmakers. This closed data prevents granular analysis of gun sales, said Webster.
“We should not convey we know nothing about preventing gun violence, there is research,” said Webster. “But we don’t know enough as we should given the magnitude of the problem.”
In addition to having money opportunities, government-funded research has the prestige. “When we look at the CDC and NIH, we see them as gold standard.” said Agrawal. “They aren’t suppose to be biased.” It also “sends a signal,” said Webster. “Basically that the nation values this area of scientific inquiry.”
In response to President Obama’s memorandum, NIH issued three grant opportunities open to the public. To date, the federal agency has funded a wide-array of research — not specifically targeting mass shootings. In fact, a majority of gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides. Researchers have explored several gun-related issues, like identifying risk factors for all firearm injuries among recent combat veterans to analyzing the exposure to violence and subsequent weapons use.
NIH grantee Dr. Rinad Beidas, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Implementation Science Working Group, looked into how gun safety counseling in pediatric primary care can prevent youth suicide. It would have been “exceedingly difficult” to pursue this research without NIH funding, Beidas told ThinkProgress, because of the grant type and research network afforded by the federal agency. Beidas is looking to implement some of her study’s findings, but would need to apply to another grant to fund her work. If the NIH firearm program isn’t shelved, she’ll look to reapply.
Of course, research doesn’t necessary translate into robust policy decisions, especially given the influence of the gun lobby in Congress. In fact, a major frustration from health experts is that science-based evidence is often sidelined and politicized — not just when it comes to guns.