Citing the 33,636 deaths the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributed to firearms in 2013, President Barack Obama seems intent on placing gun violence at the forefront of our national conversation. The National Rifle Association seems equally intent on arguing the opposite of whatever he says. Neither side, though, has comprehensive, reproducible data supporting their arguments. While both rely on anecdotes and natural experiments — both of which can be quite convincing — the CDC remains mute on how to achieve one of the primary roles of government: protecting its citizens.
In 1996, former U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey (R–Ark.) successfully lobbied on behalf of the NRA for putting language in the budget preventing the CDC from advocating for, or promoting, gun control. This, by former Rep. Dickey’s own admission, unintentionally stymied all CDC research on gun violence prevention and has led to two decades of silence from our primary public health research center.
As of fiscal year 2015, the CDC received $0 from Congress for gun violence prevention research. President Obama, in response to the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, called for an end to the moratorium on federally funded scientific research exploring the causes of gun violence. The 2015 bill, which allocates $10 million per year until 2021 for CDC research on gun violence prevention, remains buried in subcommittee.
This is not to say that no private funding for gun violence prevention research exists. Several universities — including Harvard and Johns Hopkins — have centers or parts of centers devoted to firearm research funded by private sources. Private funding and the resulting research, however, can — rightly or wrongly — be accused of bias more convincingly than public funding.
Private funding’s presence, then, cannot make up for the perception that the government isn’t trying to fund the CDC, which makes gun violence research a pariah to the scientific community. It also inhibits this research and effectively blocks a consensus on how to best prevent the avoidable accidents, injuries and deaths attributed to gun violence. Contrast this with the CDC’s estimated annual $47.2 billion in medical expenses and productivity loss due to gun violence and the need for federally funded research becomes irresistibly reasonable.
It is so reasonable, in fact, that Mark Rosenberg, former director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control — who claimed to be fired for his commitment to gun violence prevention research — and Dickey have come together to advocate for increased federal funding for gun violence prevention research. Through a joint appearance on NPR and an op-ed in the Washington Post, Dickey and Rosenberg accept that though they have vehemently disagreed with each other in the past, they now both accept that substantial changes are imperative to improving our knowledge base and protecting our citizens.
Not only is public health funding necessary to fill a hole in our public health infrastructure, it is also an opportunity to inspire and train the next generation of eager students of public health. The University of Michigan, for example, is poised to open degrees in Public Health to undergraduates — following a national trend. What better way to engage a new generation of students than to address one of the leading causes of avoidable injuries and deaths?
Gun violence is often associated with mass shootings, tragic events that occur with a depressingly normal frequency. But it is also at play during criminal acts, homicides, suicides and accidents. These avoidable tragedies manifest themselves differently throughout various regions and within the impressively diverse communities that define our national identity. Without federal funding, then, we cannot effectively develop, promote and prescribe tailored interventions that best decrease the needless deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year.
Our federal government, to best protect its citizens and provide them with the opportunity to thrive absent the horror of gun violence, must lift its embargo on CDC funding for gun violence prevention research. Not doing so would not only be a shirking of responsibility, but a passive acceptance of a disgraceful norm.
Danny Sack can be reached at email@example.com.