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Why the CDC still isn’t researching gun violence, despite the ban being lifted two years ago

Fear and funding shortfalls remain at the CDC, even though the agency was ordered to resume firearm studies after Newtown shooting.

President Obama and Vice President Biden unveiled a series of proposals to counter gun violence in January 2013. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Two years ago this week, President Obama ordered the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get back to studying “the causes of gun violence.”

The CDC had not touched firearm research since 1996 — when the NRA accused the agency of promoting gun control and Congress threatened to strip the agency’s funding. The CDC’s self-imposed ban dried up a powerful funding source and had a chilling effect felt far beyond the agency: Almost no one wanted to pay for gun violence studies, researchers say. Young academics were warned that joining the field was a good way to kill their careers. And the odd gun study that got published went through linguistic gymnastics to hide any connection to firearms.

The long stalemate continued until shortly after the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., when Obama announced several gun-control proposals, including reversing the CDC research ban. His higher-profile proposals – tightening firearm background checks, reinstating the assault weapons ban – were viewed as impossible to pass into law. Congress wouldn’t bite. But ending the CDC research ban? Done by executive order, it appeared to have the best shot, along with broad support from a scientific community upset that gun violence as a public health problem was being ignored.

“A lot of people thought it would make a big difference,” recalled Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke University psychiatry professor who studies gun violence and mental health.

But today the CDC still avoids gun-violence research, demonstrating what many see as the depth of its fear about returning to one of the country’s most divisive debates. The agency recently was asked by The Washington Post why it was still sitting on the sidelines of firearms studies. It declined to make an official available for an interview but responded with a statement noting it had commissioned an agenda of possible research goals but still lacked the dedicated funding to pursue it.

“It is possible for us to conduct firearm-related research within the context of our efforts to address youth violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, and suicide,” CDC spokeswoman Courtney Lenard wrote, “but our resources are very limited.”

Congress has continued to block dedicated funding. Obama requested $10 million for the CDC’s gun violence research in his last two budgets. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have introduced bills supporting the funding.  Both times the Republican-controlled House of Representatives said no. Maloney recently said she planned to reintroduce her bill this year, but she wasn’t hopeful.

So, the CDC is no closer to initiating gun-violence studies.

The roots of the research ban go back to 1996, when the NRA accused the public health agency of lobbying for gun control. That year, a Republican congressman stripped $2.6 million from the CDC budget, the exact amount spent on gun research the previous year. Soon the funding was restored, but designated elsewhere, and wording was inserted into the CDC’s appropriations bill that, “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.”

The CDC interpreted this to mean it should avoid studying guns in any fashion.

“It basically was a shot across the bow by Congress on the part of the NRA,” said Mark Rosenberg, who was director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Control and Prevention when the ban went into effect. “All federally funded research was shut down.”

CDC funding for firearm injury prevention fell 96 percent, down to $100,000, from 1996 to 2013, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the advocacy group founded by Michael Bloomberg.

Timothy Wheeler, director of the group Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, said Congress had good reason to stop the CDC’s firearm inquiries. “It was what we call advocacy research,” Wheeler said. “It was research done with a preordained goal, and that goal was gun control.”

Wheeler, voicing an opinion shared by many in the gun-rights movement, said the CDC has been “irredeemably tainted” by past controversy. “I don’t have faith in them anymore,” Wheeler said.

But gun deaths and injuries are a major public health problem, researchers say. More than 100 scientists signed a 2013 letter calling on the CDC to resume research to identify effective ways of reducing gun violence rather than “muddling through” with existing tactics.

“I see no upside to ignorance,” said Richard Berk, a criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who signed the letter. 

The CDC was not alone in avoiding firearm studies. The National Institute of Justice, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, funded 32 gun-related studies from 1993 to 1999, but none from 2009-2013, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Private nonprofits, with some notable exceptions such as the Joyce Foundation, skipped over gun-related research proposals.

“Sponsors were spooked to fund stuff that had to do with guns,” said Swanson at Duke. He said younger colleagues got the message: Studying firearms was not a way to attract vital grant funding. It was a field without a future.

Even the few gun studies that received funding took steps to avoid detection. In 2011, the National Science Foundation awarded Swanson $300,000 for a study it described as “Testing Competing Theories of Violence.” There was no mention of guns in the title or the study abstract. But Swanson said the study evaluates the effectiveness of mental health firearm restrictions. He titled the same study: “Firearms Laws, Mental Disorder, and Violence.”

“It’s odd,” Swanson said, “but if you’re trying to do policy-informed research, you run into the fact that there are elected officials who don’t want to know the answer.”

Swanson remains hopeful. The CDC still hasn’t budged, but he and other researchers say they have noticed signs that other federal agencies and private foundations have felt emboldened by Obama’s executive order. Recently the National Institute of Justice issued major grants to study gun violence, including evaluating California’s efforts to keep firearms from people barred by law from possessing them.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” Swanson said. But, he said, the CDC needs to stop being terrified of gun research.

“No one can make up the role of the CDC,” he said. “There’s a legitimacy there that no one else can provide.”