RISK: Little funding available for U.S. gun violence studies

Researchers report receiving death threats from believers in unrestricted gun ownership

There have been more than 250 mass shootings in the U.S. this year but little funding is available to study what’s causing gun violence and which policies work best to prevent it.

Total funding for gun violence research and data collection comes in at well under $5 million each year. A single study on autism or cancer can get a grant for more than twice as much.

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The Centre for Disease Control, the federal government’s lead agency for the detection and prevention of health threats, took an early leading role in fostering more research into violence. But beginning in the 1980s, the National Rifle Association tried to discredit CDC-funded studies, accusing the agency and the researchers the agency funded of incompetence and falsifying data.

In 1996, lawmakers sympathetic to the NRA took the $2.6 million CDC had budgeted for firearm injury research and earmarked it for traumatic brain injury.

NRA officials in Washington did not respond to repeated Associated Press requests for comment for this story.

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In the last decade, funding for gun violence grew so tight that Dr. Garen Wintemute, a long-time gun violence researcher at the University of California at Davis, spent more than $1 million of his own money to keep different gun violence research projects going.

Much of the research that has been done has had to be relatively simple–based on small surveys or on what limited data has been collected on guns and on gun-related injuries and deaths.

As state and federal officials debate gun laws or violence prevention programs, it’s often not clear how well they’ll work. To answer such questions, researchers ideally would like to know the exact number, type, and distribution of guns, as well as who owns them and where people got them. They’d like to know how and where they’re stored, and to track use of gun safety courses.

That’s all key data for determining actual risk and what actions best reduce risk.

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Researchers have wondered if there will be a turning point that might cause more people to advocate for research.

Then came the December 2012 carnage in Newtown, Connecticut, where a an armed 20-year-old man entered an elementary school and used a semiautomatic rifle to slay 20 first graders and six adult school staff members before killing himself. It was the third-deadliest mass slaying at a school in U.S. history.

The White House directed the CDC to research the causes and prevention of gun violence. The actions included a call for Congress to provide $10 million to the CDC for gun violence research. The prestigious Institute of Medicine convened a special committee of experts to develop a research agenda.

But Congress did not budget money to the CDC for gun violence research. It didn’t strip away the legislative language that had chilled CDC activity on guns, either. The research agenda was not formally adopted by anybody.

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Young researchers interested in studying gun violence often turn to other topics, put off by limited funding and frustration that their findings would likely be politicized, and have little impact. Many researchers report receiving angry emails and death threats from believers in unrestricted gun ownership.

Dr. Michael Levas, a young researcher in Milwaukee, is drawn to the area of gun violence, and fascinated by its potential, but he won’t commit to it.

“If the climate was right and the funding was there, it would make sense to focus on gun violence prevention,” he said. “But right now, it would be a dead end.”

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