Unmuzzle Gun Safety Research

Is a government order that obstructs gun violence research a threat to public health?

Five Figures to Consider

33,000 is the average annual number of gun deaths
33,000 is the average annual number of traffic deaths
$2 million is spent annually on federal research for studying gun violence deaths
$33 million is spent annually on federal research for studying motor vehicle deaths
1997 is the year the Dickey Amendment went into effect

There are approximately 33,000 firearm deaths each year and 33,000 motor vehicle accident deaths. An estimated $2 million is spent annually on federal research for studying gun violence deaths while an estimated $33 million is spent annually on federal research for studying motor vehicle deaths. As a result of this massive underfunding of research, there is not a large body of data that lawmakers can refer to when crafting effective policy.  Will restrictions help prevent another mass shooting?  Will arming the public prevent another mass shooting? What’s effective?  What’s not? The American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association have both declared gun violence in America a public health crisis. If so, why don’t we study gun violence the same way we study other public health threats?  

Mass shootings such as the recent one in Parkland, Florida, are always followed by calls to change America’s gun laws. Gun control advocates believe restricting access to guns through background checks, an assault weapons ban, age limits and red flag laws will save lives.  Meanwhile, gun rights supporters, led by the National Rifle Association, argue expanding gun access through concealed carry, permitless carry, gun reciprocity, stand your ground laws and arming teachers will allow citizens to defend themselves. Since 2013 states have enacted 382 “pro-gun” bills expanding access to firearms and 210 “gun safety laws” making it more difficult to possess guns.  Nevertheless, gun deaths continued to rise in 2017, up 3% from 2016.

Both sides appear to agree that inaction is not the answer and that reducing deaths should be the primary objective of gun policies. What they do not agree on are what policies will best achieve that.  Why? Many point to the Dickey Amendment. Following a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that showed a significant increased risk of death by gun simply by living in a house with a gun, a 1997 federal budget provision barred the CDC from using federal funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” While this did not prevent the CDC from researching gun violence, the legislation was accompanied by a $2.6 million budget cut. That amount matched the amount the CDC had spent on firearms research the previous year. From 1996 to 2013, CDC funding for gun research dropped by 96%.  In fiscal years 2014 – 2017, President Obama requested $10 million for CDC to research gun violence.  The House denied the request each time. The federal government now spends considerably less on research into gun violence than it does on other health risks that kill a comparable number of Americans each year.

Since 2003, an appropriations rider prohibits the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from releasing any gun trace data it collects and from using an electronic database to consolidate and centralize these records. It must use a paper-based filing system.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has also been barred since 2012 from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” Research in gun violence prevention has continued, although the sample size is often small and findings disputed.  While one side interprets the eradication of mass shootings in Australia to its gun buyback program, the other side points out that Australia’s murder rate was already dropping. In an effort to establish a “shared set of facts” based on scientific evidence, the non-partisan Rand Corporation analyzed thousands of studies to examine the effects of various gun policies.  In many cases, evidence was too scant to be conclusive. The review did find statistically strong evidence that concealed carry laws increased violent crime and that safe storage reduced childhood firearm deaths, moderate evidence that stand-your-ground laws increased overall homicide rates, background checks reduced firearm suicides and homicides, and laws prohibiting the purchase or possession of guns by individuals with some forms of mental illness reduced violent crime.  

In both the House and Senate, bills have been introduced in the current Congress to repeal the Dickey amendment and authorize $50,000,000 between 2018 and 2023 for the CDC to research firearm safety and gun violence prevention.. The bills include H.R. 1478 (with 151 co-sponsors including seven Republicans), which would strike the amendment, and two others, S. 834 and its companion House measure, H.R. 1832, which would appropriate funds to reinstitute gun violence research.

Additionally, both California and New Jersey are taking action. A bill is moving through the New Jersey Legislature that would create a gun-violence research center at Rutgers University. The center would be modeled on the new Firearm Violence Prevention Research Center at the University of California at Davis, which launched last summer with $5 million in state funding.

Without data, all we’ve got is opinions. It is past time to remove “policy riders” on federal appropriations bills that limit firearms research at the CDC, ATF and NIH. Let’s provide appropriate funding to study the role of firearms on public health. Your life could depend on it.


Pew Charitable Trust, Gun Violence Archive, The American Psychological Association, CDC, Auto Safety Organization, Rand Corporation, Everytown for Gun Safety, U.S. Congress