The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here are the questions about gun violence the CDC would study — if it could

Back in January, President Obama signed an executive order directing the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to start studying “the causes of gun violence." The idea was to restart federal research into the topic after a longtime freeze.

But that still left a key question unanswered: What would the CDC actually study, if it could? What more is there to know about gun violence that we don't already know?

Quite a bit, it seems. Earlier this week, a panel at the Institutes of Medicine released a big new report outlining a research agenda for the CDC over the next three to five years. Topics would include the effects of media portrayals of violence and a look at whether "smart guns" that only fire for registered users could decrease accidents.

An accompanying brief (pdf) outlines a number of things that researchers still don't know — and should study. Here are some highlights:

-- "[The] exact number and location of guns and gun types is unknown."
-- "What characteristics differentiate mass shootings that were prevented from those that were carried out?"
-- Researchers should try to "identify factors associated with juveniles and youths having access to, possessing, and carrying guns." In other words, it's still not entirely clear what types of guns kids get, or how they get them.
-- Researchers should also "improve understanding of whether reducing criminal access to legally purchased guns reduces firearm violence." For instance, would universal background checks actually work?
-- Another key question: "Do programs to alter physical environments in high-crime areas result in a decrease in firearm violence?" Do restrictions on alcohol sales, for instance, have any effect on gun violence?
-- "Identify the effects of different technological approaches to reduce firearm-related injury and death." Are there realistic ways to make guns child-proof, for instance?
-- "Examine the relationship between exposure to media violence and real-life violence."

The report also argues that researchers should try to conduct more studies that involve controlled trials that can actually show causation. At the moment, a big chunk of what we know about gun violence is based on studies that simply look at correlations between different laws in different states — which isn't terribly conclusive.

So there's a lot to find out. That said, it's still not clear that the CDC will actually move ahead. Congress, after all, has long barred the CDC from funding any research that could be used to “advocate or promote gun control.” Technically, that's not a ban on all gun research, but the law is hazy enough that the centers have shied away from the topic altogether.

“Now scientists will have one interpretation of the law from the executive branch and another from Congress,” Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists back said in January. And lawmakers still control the funding. So until Congress gives its explicit blessing to the CDC, federal gun research is likely to proceed only haltingly.

Related: A closer look at why federal gun research has wilted since the 1990s.