Doctors: Gun Safety Research Blocked

smoking-gunSMALLEconintersect: Two prominent physicians have written a paper (21 December 2012) for JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) which is critical of the laws that have been implemented over the past 16 years – laws that the authors say have significantly curtailed medical research into the effects of guns on public health and mortality.  They specifically cite 1996 legislation which started a process of of defunding and squashing research that had been making inroads (they say) into understanding what factors mostly significantly affect injury and death from firearms.

After discussing factors such as access to guns, gun safety in the home and restrictions on gun ownership, which they claim had been identified as important factors needing further research, the authors discuss what happened in 1996:

The nation might be in a better position to act if medical and public health researchers had continued to study these issues as diligently as some of us did between 1985 and 1997. But in 1996, pro-gun members of Congress mounted an all-out effort to eliminate the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although they failed to defund the center, the House of Representatives removed $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, precisely the amount the agency had spent on firearm injury research the previous year. Funding was restored in joint conference committee, but the money was earmarked for traumatic brain injury. The effect was sharply reduced support for firearm injury research.

To ensure that the CDC and its grantees got the message, the following language was added to the final appropriation:

“…none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”4

Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out. Extramural support for firearm injury prevention research quickly dried up. Even today, 17 years after this legislative action, the CDC’s website lacks specific links to information about preventing firearm-related violence.

The authors describe how the CDC restrictions were later extended to all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the National Institutes of Health.

Other areas of government activity that have come under restrictive provisions of law according to the authors:

  • Military officers have been prohibited from talking to enlisted men about their private weapons, even when there is fear of potential suicide.
  • Florida has passed a law that threatens practitioners to possible sanctions, including loss of license, if they discuss or record information about firearm safety, subject to review that determines the action was “not relevant“ or was “unnecessarily harassing.”
  • Washington state has restricted access to the state’s firearm registration files.  These files had been used in the past for gun safety research.

The authors summarize the costs of gun violence compared to other activities that do not have health and safety research restrictions:

Injury prevention research can have real and lasting effects. Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans dying in motor vehicle crashes has decreased by 31%.1 Deaths from fires and drowning have been reduced even more, by 38% and 52%, respectively.1 This progress was achieved without banning automobiles, swimming pools, or matches. Instead, it came from translating research findings into effective interventions.

Given the chance, could researchers achieve similar progress with firearm violence? It will not be possible to find out unless Congress rescinds its moratorium on firearm injury prevention research. Since Congress took this action in 1997, at least 427,000 people have died of gunshot wounds in the United States, including more than 165,000 who were victims of homicide.1 To put these numbers in context, during the same time period, 4586 Americans lost their lives in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.10

The authors are associated with RAND, Washington, DC (Dr Kellermann); and Department of Pediatrics, Child Health Institute, University of Washington, and Seattle Children’s Hospital, Seattle (Dr Rivara). Dr Rivara is also Editor, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

John Lounsbury


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