How the Government Stifled Gun Research

Semi-automatic handgun and ammo.
A semi-automatic handgun. (Image credit: kongsak sumano, Shutterstock)

What should be done about guns?

In the wake of the mass murder of elementary schoolers and their teachers in Newtown, Conn., last month, that question is getting more attention than it has in many years. Vice President Joe Biden, who is chairing a working group on gun violence, has already met with lawmakers on new gun policy proposals, which President Barack Obama promised to unveil publically this week.

But scientific evidence for exactly which kind of legislation would be most effective at stemming gun violence is lacking — a situation that is in many ways of the government's own creation. Several congressional efforts in the 1990s and up to 2011 have limited federal research on gun violence, vastly reducing the scientific data available for policymakers today.

What's left is piecemeal and often small-scale research that fails to answer big questions about effective restrictions, the link between gun violence and mental health and cultural factors such as media, said Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association. Farley has been calling for what he dubs a "national violence project" that would approach the question of gun violence with the same gusto as the Manhattan project developing the atomic bomb, or the Apollo missions to the moon.

"I don't think we're going to get there by piecemeal efforts," Farley told LiveScience. "It's got to be big."

How we got here

In the 1980s and 1990s, research on gun violence in the United States was going strong. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) funded studies on gun violence, and research was bearing fruit, said Fred Rivara, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital. In particular, Rivara said, agency-funded research had revealed that residents of homes with guns had a higher likelihood of violent death in the home. [The History of Human Aggression]

However, once those findings came to the attention of the National Rifle Association (NRA), a political firestorm ensued. Congress members who supported the NRA first attempted to remove all funding from the NCIPC. That failed, but Congress did manage to remove $2.6 million from the CDC's overall budget, the exact amount spent on firearm injury research in the past year, Rivara wrote Dec. 21 in a commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

More chillingly, Congress added language to the budget appropriations bill forbidding any CDC funding that might "advocate or promote gun control."

"The net effect is that we don't have any research going on in the public health sector about ways to prevent gun violence," Rivara told LiveScience.

In 2011, the wording on budget appropriations was expanded to include funding from all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the National Institutes of Health. In other words, Congress let it be known that attempts to get at the root of the more than 31,000 U.S. deaths from firearms each year would be punished, Rivara said.

Similar efforts to hamper gun safety and education abound. In Florida, the Privacy of Firearm Owners bill would make it a crime for a health-care professional to ask a patient if they kept a gun in the home — although a study in the journal Pediatrics in 2008 found that counseling by a family doctor increased the rate at which families with guns either removed the guns from the home or stored them safely out of the reach of children.

The Florida legislature passed the bill in 2011, but it was challenged on First Amendment freedom of speech grounds and currently remains blocked pending continuing court action. A similar "gag rule" remains in effect in the military, however, thanks to a provision in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act that prevents commanders and noncommissioned officers from asking even suicidal service members if they have access to private firearms. [5 Biggest Gun-Control Milestones in History]

"It flies in the face of science, which is to identify causal connections and statistical relationships, and then, in medicine, to do something about it," said Dr. Jerome Kassirer, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and an editor-in-chief emeritus of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment about the research restrictions.

Bringing science to the table

Biden's working group may address some of these scientific issues. On Thursday (Jan. 10), Biden told reporters that federal agencies need to collect information about what kinds of weapons are most frequently used in homicides as well as what kinds of weapons are most often sold illegally. And more than 100 scientists from universities around the country have petitioned Biden's group to lift the research restrictions.

If the federal government begins funding gun-violence research again, challenges will still remain. In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, mental illness has been a buzzword, said Temple University's Farley. But better mental-health care is no panacea when the psychology and psychiatry community is in an uproar over questions as basic as how to properly diagnose psychiatric problems, Farley said.

"We're having major internal battles over such a basic issue of diagnosis," he said, citing controversy over the ongoing revisions to the "psychiatrist's bible," the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DMS). "We need to get our own house in order, also," Farley said.

Adding to the confusion, there is no clear link between mental illness and violence. In fact, the mentally ill are more likely than the average person to be victims of violence, not perpetrators.  

Guns are the low-hanging fruit of the violence conversation, Farley said, because they're the standout difference between the United States and other developed nations such as Canada, which have stricter gun control but many of the same cultural factors such as violent media. (According to a report released Jan. 9 by the National Research Council and the National Institute of Medicine, 1.6 Canadians per 100,000 died from all forms of violence in 2008 compared with 6.5 Americans per every 100,000 that same year.)

Other researchers agree. Kassirer said he wants to see substantial funding for research projects on what kinds of gun protections best reduce violence. Research on links between media violence and gun violence is another target area, he said. [The 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]

"It is difficult," Kassirer told LiveScience. "But the more advanced we get in terms of social science research, the better we are in identifying the relationships between variables."

To Farley, this sort of work requires a concerted, centralized effort. In many ways, researchers remain in the dark on what causes violence and what solves it. Overall, violent crime is down and has been dropping since the 1970s, according to the Bureau of Justice. No one knows why. Nor does anyone know why mass shootings haven't fallen along with the general trend.

Part of the problem is that too many studies of violence focus on "small-v violence," Farley said. These sorts of studies might simulate a scenario with college students and measure their aggression through questionnaires or the like, he said. It's not clear that such research sheds much light on "big-v violence" such as real-life mass killings, he added.

"We need big integrative, cooperative, multisite studies of real perpetrators, not simulations in university laboratories," Farley said.

Small-scale studies are driven by lack of funding and academic pressure to produce constant research publications, Farley said, suggesting that academia needs to rethink its priorities as well.

"We should be ashamed of ourselves if we don't stand up, get it together, and deal with the violence issue," he said.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.