Why Don’t We Study Gun Violence the Way We Study Car Accidents?

Critics say the CDC’s failure shows a lack of backbone. Will a new surgeon general stiffen it?

(Photo: 'The Washington Post'/Getty Images)

Dec 22, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Eliza Krigman is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She writes about politics, business, and lifestyle issues.

The Senate confirmation last week of Vivek Murthy as U.S. Surgeon General, after a 17-month delay largely due to resistance from the National Rifle Association, means the nation now has a doctor-in-chief who believes gun violence is a public health issue.

“Tired of politicians playing politics w/guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA,” Murthy tweeted back in October 2012. “Guns are a health care issue.”

Two months after Murthy’s tweet, 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., were massacred by a gunman. The incident infused the national debate about gun control with new urgency. Yet, since then, the U.S. has failed to take meaningful steps to reduce access to firearms or even study how guns affect the health of its citizens.

Policy on the prevention of violence tied to gun use is an “area that’s woefully inadequately based in actual evidence,” said Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Everybody is making things up.”

One big reason for the absence of such data is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been operating for more than a decade under a virtual ban against doing the work. In the 1990s, the NRA persuaded Congress to pass legislation forbidding the CDC from using federal dollars to promote or advocate gun control. The restriction has been interpreted ever since to mean that no government research can be conducted on how guns affect health, placing an effective choke hold on any such work at the CDC.

The CDC points to a lack of dedicated funds as the reason it doesn’t do more work in this space. Shortly after the research ban was imposed, Congress yanked from its budget the amount it had been spending on gun violence research. But outside experts say the real issue is the intimidation of the scientific community. Mark Rosenberg, former director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that the CDC “has been terrorized by the NRA.”

In early 2013, President Obama directed the CDC to resume gun violence research. The agency called on the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council to form a committee that would develop a report identifying pressing research areas related to the prevention of gun violence. The committee, which Leshner chaired, released its study in June 2013.

You have to patch together little pieces of funding rather than do it at the level you wish you could.

Stephen Teret, co-founder, Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research

The report found that data about gun possession, distribution, and ownership in America is sorely lacking. Such information, the authors wrote, is essential to formulating policy that will help prevent firearm violence.

Leshner was disappointed that the report had little influence. “We came out with a report and we briefed all the right people,” he said. “Nothing happened.”

CDC spokeswoman Courtney Lenard said the agency is “committed to stopping violence before it begins” and “will continue to support analyses of surveillance and other data to document the public health burden of firearm injuries in the U.S.” But outside of spurring Leshner’s report, the CDC has scant work to showcase on gun violence research.

Stephen Teret, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, called the CDC’s abandonment of gun violence research an “overreaction” to what Congress mandated. Lenard wouldn’t answer the question of whether CDC is bowing to pressure from the gun lobby.

If the CDC were to engage in and fund research to prevent firearm violence, it could go a long way toward stopping it, Teret said.

For a useful comparison, Teret described the decline in fatalities from motor vehicle accidents. By diligently studying their circumstances, government agencies have identified causes and subsequently promoted policies to address the causes of car accidents. Over the past two decades, vehicular deaths per population have fallen consistently, while the rate of deaths by firearms has seen a slight rise since 1999.

Despite the conspicuous absence of the CDC in gun research, “There are still a number of stalwarts in the country who are struggling along, doing good gun violence research,” said Teret. “But you have to patch together little pieces of funding rather than do it at the level you wish you could.”

With more money and the support of the CDC, Teret said, one priority area of research would be finding out what kind of people are at risk for recommitting violence and then adding them to the category of citizens disallowed from purchasing guns. Another area would be so-called smart guns, which are designed so they are only fireable by authorized people.

Though the Sandy Hook massacre may not have been enough to change firearm policy, new leadership in Washington could breathe new life into gun violence research, and staunch advocates of stricter gun laws see Murthy’s appointment as a significant win.

“Dr. Murthy’s confirmation is part of an exciting, growing trend of victories for the American public over the interests and influence of the corporate gun lobby,” Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a press release. “The American people know that gun violence is a public health issue, and they support sensible measures to reduce gun deaths and injuries.”