Turn on any local news in the United States, and you’ll inevitably be deluged with reports of gun violence. Nearly 40,000 Americans died from gunshot wounds in 2017, the highest number in half a century.
Whether a school shooting, domestic violence, or suicide, bloodshed inevitably leads to calls for action from voices across the political spectrum. However, beyond the shocking headlines and top-line statistics, we know surprisingly little about guns in America — and even less about what we can do to prevent gun violence. The dearth of hard data has allowed political rhetoric to fill the void and, inadvertently, stifle effective policy.
That’s about to change.
This week, a new national collaborative supported by Arnold Ventures announced that it has awarded $9.8 million to fund 13 major research projects and four doctoral dissertations on gun violence.
Amid a resurgence of concern about firearms research, Arnold Ventures decided to partner with the RAND Corporation to create the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, a nonpartisan philanthropy devoted to funding rigorous research into gun policy and the prevention of violence.
“The Arnold Ventures philosophy is, we support research and evidence-based policy so the government can do its job better,” said Jeremy Travis, Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. “We like to take on tough issues, and gun violence is a tough issue.”
Seeded with $20 million from Arnold Ventures, the NCGVR will administer up to four rounds of research grants. The first request for proposals, issued in January, produced a flood of interest.
“We expected to get around 100 responses and ended up with 248,” said Andrew Morral, Director of the NCGVR and a RAND researcher. “It was researchers from all backgrounds — computer scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists, criminologists. Many had never worked in this field but had expertise that could be usefully applied.”
The Arnold Ventures philosophy is, we support research and evidence-based policy so the government can do its job better. We like to take on tough issues, and gun violence is a tough issue.Jeremy Travis Arnold Ventures Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice
Each proposal was independently reviewed by two Ph.D.-level scientists who made recommendations to the NCGVR’s 12-person Research Advisory Committee, which is composed of national leaders in public health, government, law enforcement, criminal justice, and economics — including members who served in Republican and Democratic administrations.
“The committee represents very diverse positions on guns, different political parties, different communities affected by guns,” Morral said.
This independence is crucial to ensure that research funded by the NCGVR meets the most rigorous standards of objectivity.
“Some gun violence research has been biased by the preconceptions of the researchers, or the researchers' funder,” Morral acknowledges. “And that’s led to a lot of suspicion of research in this area, on both sides of the debate. We’re sensitive to those concerns, which is one of the reasons we are requiring NCGVR and its grantees to adhere to high standards of transparency and openness.”
Among other requirements, recipients of NCGVR grants must pre-register their analysis plans and make their data and methods public so others can verify their findings.
It is critical that this research be held to the highest standards of academic rigor and objectivity because it will serve as the first major opportunity for a new generation of researchers to study firearms in the United States.
Least-Studied Cause of Death
For the past quarter-century, there has been almost no federally-funded firearms research. In 1996, Congressman Jay Dickey of Arkansas inserted a clause into an appropriations bill that barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using taxpayer money to “advocate or promote gun control.” The same bill stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget — the exact amount it had spent on firearm-injury research the previous year. Although the Dickey Amendment didn’t explicitly prohibit gun violence research, it had a chilling effect as agency administrators feared that funding such research would lead to similar recisions from their own budgets.
“We’ve basically had 23 years of the government being missing in action on this front,” said Travis. “Those are two lost decades in terms of what we might have known if we had invested in research.”
That lack of research is especially striking given the substantial funding devoted to other leading causes of death in America. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that gun violence was one of the least studied and least funded causes of death in the United States — receiving about 1.6% of the funding predicted given the number of deaths.
Because of the dearth of federal funding, the NCGVR represents one of the most significant investments in gun violence research in recent memory. “This is a huge infusion of resources into an area where there is a lot of low-hanging fruit,” Morral said. “There’s important improvements to be made in just understanding descriptively who’s being affected. Who’s getting guns? Why are they carrying guns? How reliable are they in using their guns? How many people own guns in each state? We don’t know these things.”
The first round of research projects includes a study of how firearms are stored in households with children; a national survey of police-involved shootings; a respondent-driven investigation of inner-city gun ownership; and a major new analysis of the effectiveness of background check laws.
The single biggest research grant, $2.4 million, is going to a Yale University team that will seek to determine the role of guns in domestic violence by asking victims or potential victims of domestic violence to keep daily diaries. “We know that most women who are murdered are murdered by their spouse, ex-spouse, or lover,” Morral said. “But beyond murder, we don’t really know much. Is a gun’s presence in the house used to threaten or intimidate women? If so, in what ways?”
Another major study, by Stanford University researchers, will use a decade’s worth of California gun ownership data to examine the costs and benefits of having a firearm in the house to people other than the firearm’s owner.
The funded research projects will take up to three years to complete; in the meantime, the NCGVR plans to issue its second request for proposals in December or January. The collaborative is currently seeking additional philanthropic support to supplement the remaining $10 million provided by Arnold Ventures. In the long term, the collaborative hopes its efforts will encourage the federal government to resume funding gun violence research. In March, Morral testified before a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on the need for greater funding. In June, the House passed an appropriations bill that earmarked $50 million for firearms research.
While its fate in the Senate is uncertain, the appropriations bill gives hope to Asheley Van Ness, Director of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. “We see some promising signs around this issue,” she said. “Arnold Ventures was set up to support projects like this, that use data and science to tackle some of the most intractable problems our society faces.”