Why the Government Doesn't Research Gun Violence

Published Mar 6, 2018

Charise Johnson, research associate at the Union of Concerned Scientists, talks about why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can’t study gun violence injuries and death, and how this leaves the public in the dark and at risk.

In this episode
  • Charise explains why gun violence is a public health issue
  • Charise and Colleen discuss what the Dickey Amendment is and what is does for gun research at the CDC
  • Charise talks about what policymakers need to make science-based decisions about guns
  • Charise tells Colleen just how under researched gun violence is
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Full transcript

Welcome to the Got Science? podcast. I’m your host Colleen MacDonald. The centers for disease control and prevention study death. Death by viruses, death by automobiles, death by diseases, death by bike accidents, death by cigarettes, but it does not study death by gun violence. That’s our topic today on the Got Science? podcast.

One of the coolest things about working with scientists is that I get to see how they process the world through the lens of problem solving. Bad news is never just bad news. It fits into a pattern that can be studied and examined, and perhaps with enough examination the pattern can be changed to result in better news.

Of course scientists are also human beings. My colleagues and I have been distraught over the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. For all of us the senseless loss of young lives is devastating, and for the problem solvers it is also extremely frustrating, because widespread gun violence is a problem that should be solved. And it can be solved we just don’t have the tools.

Research and examination of this problem would lead to science based solutions, but there’s been a deliberate choice in this country to ban public funding for gun violence research. Gun control is an emotional issue for many, which is why we need problem solvers to do what they do best, examine the issue from all angles to find the best solution for public safety.

This research would then give policy makers the information they need to make scientifically smart decisions to address the problem, ultimately leading to fewer lives lost, reductions in injuries and changes in social norms through evidence based interventions.

The suite of options to curtail gun deaths could be much broader than restrictions on sales. For example, there could be safer technologies that could be used with guns themselves that might reduce accidental shootings. There are potential solutions we might not even know about yet, which is exactly why we need scientists to study this problem.

Joining me to talk about the history behind our national decisions to abandon the study of gun violence prevention is my colleague Charise Johnson, research associate from our Center for Science and Democracy. Charise and I delve into the Dickey Amendment, what the CDC can do and why she’s optimistic that data can save the day.

One small programming note: when Charise and I talk about gun violence we’re not just referring to random mass shootings. We’re talking about the vast majority of the many gun deaths and injuries that occur between victims and attackers who know each other; in work places, in homes, in rural areas, and in big cities.

Colleen: Hey, Charise, thanks so much for joining me on the "Got Science" podcast.

Charise: It's wonderful to be here. Thank you for having me.

Colleen: So, I read your recent blog post about gun violence research. And in the wake of the most recent gun tragedy, I really wanted to bring the issue of gun violence research to our listeners. So, you talk, in your blog, about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also known as the CDC, not getting funding from the government to research gun injuries. So, I suspect most people think of the CDC as the agency that focuses on infectious diseases like Zika, the flu, or foodborne illnesses. So, where does gun violence research fit into that work at the CDC?

Charise: That is a good question that I'm sure many people are probably asking the same thing. People are probably most familiar with the CDC's work on studying disease such as tracking influenza and monitoring for potential of global epidemics. But the CDC also conducts injury research on everything from drownings to accidental falls, to traumatic brain injuries, to car crashes, not just infections.

Colleen: So, the CDC used to actually do research on gun violence. And, I can't remember the year, but you probably do, when the Dickey Amendment was passed, which now prevents the CDC from doing gun violence research. Can you just tell me about that and how that all came about? It seems a little odd that we can't research that.

Charise: Right. It is. Isn't it a bit odd? So, what happened was there had been some studies that had come out that suggested that having a gun in the house actually increased the risk of homicide and suicide. Then after successful lobbying by the National Rifle Association, a Congressman from Arkansas by the name of Jay Dickey, he sponsored this amendment known as the Dickey Amendment. It prohibited the CDC from advocating for or promoting gun control. So, it never expressly said you cannot research gun-related deaths, but conveniently, the funding for such research was then taken away.

Colleen: So if they wanted to study it in their free time they could. Basically, the funding dried up so there's no more research. So, I've seen, written a lot, in a lot of pieces and in your blog post talking about gun violence as a public health issue. How does gun violence fit into that category?

Charise: Well, as the CDC says on their website, their very own website, they think of public health as protecting and improving the health of people in their communities. So one way they do this is by researching injury prevention. I saw a quote recently, an epidemiologist by the name of Nancy Creger said, "We, in public health, count dead people. It's one of the things we do. And we count them in order to understand how to prevent preventable deaths." Gun-related deaths and injuries are included in that.

Colleen: So the CDC is a government agency. Are there other government agencies that would research gun violence or is it just basically the CDC?

Charise: No. Also the NIH, National Institute of Health.

Colleen: Okay. How many people, on a yearly basis, die from gun violence? We hear about mass shootings but what is the total number?

Charise: So according to CDC's mortality data, because they do have that, they do obtain death certificates and they do keep track of how people die, so according to that data, over 36,000 people died from gun-related injuries in 2015. So that report was just released recently. And to put that into context, that's more than the 35,485 motor vehicle deaths in 2015.

Colleen: Wow.

Charise: So, we do a ton of research into making cars safer. And that research leads to technologies and public policy decisions that end up saving thousands of lives and preventing so many more injuries. And everyone is not getting their cars taken away.

Colleen: How much money is spent on researching gun-related deaths?

Charise: I don't know the exact dollar amount, but in 2017, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a research letter where they'd found that gun violence had less funding in fewer publications than comparable injury-related causes of death, including motor vehicle accidents and poisoning.

Colleen: What are medical professionals and associations saying about this?

Charise: Yeah. They're coming out pretty strong. For example, American Medical Association issued a press statement, I believe, in 2016 announcing a new policy where they officially called gun violence in the U.S. a public health crisis. The same goes for the American Public Health Association. They also issued a statement calling gun violence a public health issue. So the public health community, medical community, they know what it is. And we know that there are large racial disparities and who's affected by gun violence with recent research that used existing CDC data showed that black children are 10 times as likely to die from gun violence than white kids. There are so many different things that we have to look into. In communities, what is causing this, I guess... I don't know if I wanna say culture, but yeah.

Colleen: Right. Or to get to the root cause. You want to get to the root cause.

Charise: What are all the different things that are causing this. Yeah.

Colleen: And if you can't research anything, you won't ever get.

Charise: And that is because right now, it's so easy for people to say, "Well, yeah. Black on black crime. They're doing this and we're gun owners but we're not killing anyone." And that's fair. So, let's look into it. Where are these people...where are they getting their guns from? Why is this a thing that's happening? And there are interventions that work, you know, community-based interventions that work. But guess what? They require political will and money. And they're not getting them.

Colleen: If you were going to design a research program, What would you want to study?

Charise: So there are a lot of research questions that we should be asking. Gun violence covers several issues under a really large umbrella. So some of the things we would want to know... We need to learn more about causes of gun violence, the factors that make situations with guns deadlier, not only that, but we need to be deliberate that this research is equitable, that we address gun violence without racist and classist biases, that we don't just think about gun violence as mass shootings, that we realize that urban gun violence is a huge issue as well. And that's been pushed to the side a lot more. And we tend to typically hear more, just about mass shootings. So that's something that we would need to definitely be aware of. We would want to know more about the impact of existing gun laws because if we don't actually know how effective they are, then we can't really go anywhere from here.

We don't know what we have in place...if it's actually helping or not. We need some research into the impact of gun safety technology, firearm violence prevention and other interventions and the role of domestic violence, certain mental health issues and other potentially confounding factors that might predict violence. Also, I would say, the cycle of gun violence itself, the physical, mental, economic, social impacts to survivors of gun violence. Again, paying close attention to urban and low-income communities that are typically underserved but disproportionately impacted. Gosh, there are just so many questions where we need more data. There's so many questions of what state laws reduce rates of violence. Does media coverage or entertainment have a significant effect on gun use? Do the data support restrictions on gun ownership for people with certain mental illnesses? Because that's something that's pervasive in the media right after a major event like this. It's always, "Oh, it's mental health, mental health, mental health." Well, that stigmatizes a lot of people too. So, we need to actually know what is it and what mental health issues... I can keep going.

Colleen: I know. There is no lack of areas to study.


Colleen: What do you think needs to happen to reverse the Dickey Amendment to allow the CDC to study? Do you think we're at a point in time where something might actually happen?

Charise: I believe that we could. Maybe I'm just an optimist but it's easy to say nothing ever changes, nothing ever changes. But it's time that I feel we should push for that change. We should not accept no for an answer. We should use our voices and our vote to make sure that these things happen. So if that's contacting your elected officials regularly to tell them, you know, "I do not support the Dickey Amendment. Don't reauthorize it." Stay on them. Apply that pressure. I feel like it could happen because...especially recently, the secretary of Health and Human Services, kind of... I would say...just said, "Yeah. Okay. We're going to do this research," but kind of did hint at the fact that they should be doing that research.

Colleen: Right. There's a little bit of a weakening, there, of the stance.

Charise: Yeah. So, like, "Okay."

Colleen: Maybe that's a door opening.

Charise: It could be. So, you know, apply the pressure there and make sure that happens.

Colleen: But in terms of just the straight policy, that amendment would have to be repealed?

Charise: Okay. So this amendment, it's a budget rider. So every year, when we're going through the budget process, they tack on these what we call "Poison pill riders" that have to be passed.

Colleen: Right.

Charise: They just put it on there so they know like, "Well, we need a budget. So, I'm just gonna put this on here and it'll go.

Colleen: Right. It's not gonna stop the budget from being approved.

Charise: Right. So, we need to make sure that's not reauthorized. We need to get that off of there, and make sure the CDC is funded for this research and not to prevent their scientists from doing this important work. Politics has no place in these kind of decisions. It shouldn't be allowed. We should not allow our leaders to be influenced by the gun lobby to have the CDC to have these very important research stifled because it doesn't fit their agenda. We're saying we need the research and they see, "Oh, this is going to...they're just coming after our guns. They're coming after the Second Amendment." We can and should still be doing things while we're waiting for this research to be done because we do actually know some things, you know? But we need to move past just everyone's conjecture. We need to move past that.

Colleen: Are there other independent places that are doing research?

Charise: Yeah. There are. There are academics who are doing this research and there are some non-profit organizations who mostly use what little data is available from the CDC to come up with their numbers. That's something else I wanted to bring up as well, is that this issue is not just... it goes beyond just the ban on research. There's also a host of challenges that come with restrictions on data collection. I feel a good start would be just actually collecting the data or attempting. Like, let's just attempt. Let's make an attempt. And then from there, we can try and come up with solutions to make it better. But right now, if we're not doing anything... We've got to start somewhere.

Colleen: So, just recently in the wake of the Florida shooting, speaker Paul Ryan said, and I quote, "This is not the time to jump to some conclusion not knowing the full facts." So, what do you say to that?

Charise: One, had we been able to do this research for the last two decades, he wouldn't have even had to say something like that. There would be facts, we'd have that. But at the same time, I think it's irresponsible to see this amount of violence happening with guns and to sit back and do nothing at all. I mean, I do feel like there's a point where you've got to just take the precautions necessary and just do something. But, yeah. So the research would give policymakers the information they need to make science-based decisions to address this pressing problem that the U.S. really needs to solve and would ultimately lead to fewer lives lost, reductions in injuries, and potentially even changes in social norms through science-based interventions. And that's what we're here to promote.

Colleen: Great. Well, thanks for joining me, Charise. This has been an interesting and important conversation.

Charise: Thank you so much for having me.

Colleen: In the few days since I talked to Charise, so many things have happened. I decided to call her with a few follow up questions.

Colleen: Hey Charise, I was thinking about our conversation last week and I wanted to follow up with you about a couple of things. We were actually listening to the interview here in the office and we were curious about other examples of research that helps to keep us safe and what some other examples might be.

Charise: Well we have entire agencies dedicated to this sort of thing. Product safety research, public health safety research, and some of the things that we benefit from from this research are things we don’t think about. I mentioned cars, we don’t think about seatbelts we just know as soon as you get in the car you put your seatbelt on. We don’t think “Oh there’s airbags in here so if I get in an accident that might save my life.” Same goes for things like child proof pill bottles, that’s just a given, you know? We just know the pill bottles are child proof because we don’t want children getting into our medication and overdosing or dying. And also another example I think would be baby’s cribs. There were cribs that had these drop down sides an they were killing babies, because babies would get their necks caught in the bars, and so those aren’t a thing anymore because of safety research.

So I guess ultimately, we don’t have the answers we need to so many important questions that could help shape effective gun policy and even a recent study by the Rand corporation, they reviewed available studies and outcomes to find that, surprise surprise, we know next to nothing about the impacts of gun policy. Now advocates and opponents of gun safety policy are sort of doomed to this cycle of throwing conjecture around and inconclusive data into the ring, which translates to neither side budging from their position and little to no action.

Colleen: What role do you think your fellow scientists can play in overturning the ban on gun research? And what role can they play in the larger cultural/political discussion about gun violence?

Charise: Well, Colleen, as you mentioned we currently have a scientist survey that CDC scientists and other scientists at about 15 other agencies can take, but a few other things that scientists can do, I would say one of the most important is just to push for funding. Push for funding on gun violence research, because that is all but not existent.

I would also say that it would be very important and advantageous for scientists to ask policy relevant questions in their research. Now there aren’t many active academic researchers who focus on gun violence right now, but if any of you are listening and you’re on of the few who are I would actually encourage policy relevant questions in your research.

Actually, importantly, I just read that a researcher at the University of California firearm violence research center said and invited commentary in the journal of American medical associated a few years back. He cited an earlier study showing that there are no more than a dozen active and experienced academic researchers in the US who focus on gun violence.

This number might not be accurate now, but I doubt that it’s risen significantly as there’s little funds available for this research. There are probably more scientists in the US studying tardigrades, or water bears to the non-biological listeners, not that I’m discounting the importance of their contributions to very important evolutionary research, but I feel that that kind of adds some context on how under researched that is.

Colleen: Evolutionary biological research is probably a lot less controversial than studying gun violence research.

Charise: Yeah. It also comes from a place of values, but I guess evolutionary research isn’t- I guess folks don’t feel that that’s on the impinging on their constitutional rights.

Colleen: Right, I was just thinking of a recent conversation that I had with Dr. Michael Mann, and he was talking about how he never expected to be thrust into the spotlight and attacked for studying climate science, and I imagine scientists looking at gun violence research might have similar feelings about being reluctant to get into that.

Charise: Yeah, I mean not only is the lack of funding an issue there, but you don’t want to be attacked all the time because of the research you’re doing that people are against for their own moral or political reasons. Regardless of how folks feel about it we still need the research.

Colleen: Are there other things you think scientists can do or maybe something for those of us who aren’t scientists, what can the everyday person do?

Charise: I would also encourage scientists and non scientists alike to use their capacity as concerned constituents to specifically put pressure on their members of congress to lift the ban on gun violence research. And actually we have an action alert where people can send a letter to their members of congress and listeners you there you can access that on ucsusa.org/action.

I encourage personalizing the letter for impact, that has more impact when you individualize your letter. Also I would like to add that there’s a march happening on March 24th, which happens to be my birthday. So do me a favor and to celebrate my birthday with me, go out and join your local march. If you’re not in DC and can’t make it to DC for the national march, there are satellite marches happening in various cities as well. I’m not sure about that but I’m sure a Google search could help you find more information.

Colleen: I know there’s a march in Boston, I imagine most major cities will be doing something on that day. Charise what do you think a good outcome would be in say the next six months or year on this issue?

Charise: I would say funding gun violence research is right now a pretty low bar but a necessary one. Hopefully in the next six months we can say that the Dickey amendment isn’t going to be reauthorized and we can fund the CDC. Hopefully CDC scientists can just start and that would be a win.

Colleen: Great, well thanks for hopping on Skype with me to answer a few follow up questions.

Charise: My pleasure.

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