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It’s Time to Properly Fund Gun Violence and Gun Policy Research

For more than two decades the federal government deterred research into this leading cause of preventable death. A new report estimates the cost of closing the knowledge gap.

Police converge on the scene of a shooting in Brooklyn on July 14, 2021, in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Gun violence is a leading cause of preventable death and injury in the United States, but for decades, the federal government has neglected to fund the type of research necessary to save lives. As federal funding for research slowly resumes, a new report found that the government needs to spend between $587 million and $639 million over five years in order to collect and research the comprehensive, transparent data that could help stem this public health crisis. 

Each year, nearly 40,000 Americans lose their lives to homicides, suicides, and accidents. Kids and teenagers are especially vulnerable. In 2019, more young people died from gun injuries than car crashes. Despite this fatal threat, the U.S. fails to rigorously research the causes of and solutions to gun violence. 

In 1996, Congress included a provision known as the Dickey Amendment in annual appropriations legislation, which deterred using federal funding for gun violence research by barring the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and later the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from using funds to advocate or promote gun control.” Between 1996 and 2015, the NIH spent just under $2 million per year on average on research related to firearms, according to Nature magazine, and then $6 million a year over the next four years following a call to action after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Although gun violence is one of the top 20 causes of death in the U.S., it’s funded at about $63 per life lost, making it the second-most-neglected major cause of death, according to a 2017 estimate. To put this figure in context, the median research funding for leading causes of death is $4,852 per life lost, and HIV is researched at $182,668 per life. 

But this underfunding is starting to change as the rate of gun deaths continues to climb. Under former President Donald Trump, Congress appropriated $25 million for the CDC and NIH to restart gun violence research, and then renewed the funding this year. In his 2022 budget proposal, President Joe Biden proposed expanding that to $50 million. The private sector, including groups like Kaiser Permanente, the Joyce Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation, and the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, which is supported by Arnold Ventures, are also getting involved. Researchers and academics are already jumping at opportunities to use federal funding to explore critical issues, such as rates of domestic violence, suicide prevention, and gun safety for children. 

While this movement is positive, it is not nearly enough to address decades of underfunding. In a recent report funded by the Joyce Foundation and Arnold Ventures, Health Management Associates found that the federal government needs to spend roughly $120 million a year over five years in order to revise how gun violence data is collected and analyzed. The report calls on the government to: 

  • empower researchers to fully explore all aspects of the nation’s gun violence epidemic; 
  • improve databases tracking things like nonviolent shootings; 
  • standardize and improve the collection of data by law enforcement entities; and 
  • conduct annual surveys of firearm ownership and storage practices, among other recommendations. 

The report finds that making more comprehensive data available would better equip policymakers to craft solutions and better inform the public about the scope of gun violence in the United States. For example, there is currently no reliable nationwide data on nonfatal gunshot victims and their injuries — information critical to understanding firearm violence.

Without this additional funding for high-quality data collection and scientific research, it will be harder to identify and to implement policies that reduce the full spectrum of firearm deaths and injuries,” said Rosanna Smart, an economist and a member of the RAND Gun Policy in America team, which publishes unbiased information to help facilitate the development of fair and effective firearm policies

For too long, gun violence has been treated as a partisan issue. As the federal government neglected to fund research, tens of thousands of people were killed and far more dealt with the tragedy of losing a family or friend to a suicide, homicide, or accident involving a gun. With this year on track to become the deadliest in decades, it’s past time to treat gun violence like a public health issue and invest in data and research that will help curb mortality.

The full report, Cost Estimate of Federal Funding for Gun Violence Research and Data Infrastructure, is available on the Health Management Associates website. The report draws from recommendations made in two other reports: A Blueprint for a U.S. Firearms Data Infrastructure and The Next 100 Questions: A Research Agenda For Ending Gun Violence.

This was originally posted on the Academy Health blog