The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why gun violence research has been shut down for 20 years

Broken windows at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. Authorities said Stephen Paddock broke the windows and began firing with a cache of weapons, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. (John Locher/AP)
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The political positions taken up after the Las Vegas massacre are too familiar.

Democratic leaders, such as U.S. senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), immediately called for new gun control measures. They say they want, at the very least, to close loopholes in the national firearm background check system.

The lives lost in Las Vegas

And most Republicans, from statehouses right through to the White House, say they don't want new gun control laws. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin seemed to distill this view with a tweet noting, “You can't regulate evil.”

This playing-out of political roles seems to happen after every mass shooting, like it's part of the program. It has occurred after incidents in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., and San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando. On and on.

But one reason the positions are so intractable is that no one really knows what works to prevent gun deaths. Gun-control research in the United States essentially came to a standstill in 1996.

After 21 years, the science is stale.

“In the area of what works to prevent shootings, we know almost nothing,” Mark Rosenberg, who, in the mid-1990s, led the CDC's gun-violence research efforts, said shortly after the San Bernardino shooting in 2015.

In 1996, the Republican-majority Congress threatened to strip funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unless it stopped funding research into firearm injuries and deaths. The National Rifle Association accused the CDC of promoting gun control. As a result, the CDC stopped funding gun-control research — which had a chilling effect far beyond the agency, drying up money for almost all public health studies of the issue nationwide.

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 to 2012, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The institute then resumed funding in 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting the year before. Researchers in search of private funding say they know to avoid the word “gun” or “firearm” in the titles of violence-prevention studies to avoid blowback.

That hasn't stopped the rallying cry for “common-sense gun control.” But, as Rosenberg pointed out, we don't know what that looks like. Maybe background checks are not the answer. Maybe allowing guns on college campuses makes those places safer. Maybe there is a way to stop a single gunman from killing and wounding hundreds of people at a concert in Las Vegas.

But, many advocates say, it's impossible to have an honest debate about preventing gun violence when we can't study the issue.

Read Jimmy Kimmel's emotional, scathing monologue about gun control after the Las Vegas shooting

Everyone agrees the Las Vegas shooting was a tragedy. But no one knows what might work to prevent the next one.

“If we get better data, we could get a lot of traction on this,” said Jennifer Doleac, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Virginia, who has used gunfire-detection technology deployed in many cities to study how often guns are fired. “It's just so political.”

Jay Dickey was a Republican congressman from Arkansas who, in the mid-1990s, led the effort to stop the CDC's gun violence research. The Dickey Amendment, as it's known, has been reauthorized every year by Congress. He and Rosenberg, the former CDC official, were once sworn enemies. But the two men later became friends. And Dickey, before he died earlier this year, changed his thinking. After the successive waves of mass shootings, he saw that something needed to be done. Dickey said he changed his mind: Gun violence needed to be studied by the CDC. He wanted solutions — ones that, he said, also protected gun rights. It might be possible.

“We need to turn this over to science and take it away from politics,” Dickey said.

All he wanted to do was find out.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the National Institute of Justice stopped making grants for gun violence studies in 2014. The agency has made 13 grants in the three years since then.