Many media outlets seized on a clarification that the Dickey amendment — which bans the use of federal funding to promote gun control — does not apply to researching gun violence, which currently receives around 0.7% of the amount that the study of sepsis, a similarly prevalent cause of death, gets.
But the focus on the Dickey amendment — which remains firmly in place — obscured what might be significantly more influential in the course of the gun control debate: a commitment to fund the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), the US’s nationwide database of violence-related fatalities.
Where’s the evidence?
Amid the $650 billion ringfenced for violence and injury prevention, some $23.5 million has been ringfenced for the database, which has long been undermined by uneven reporting between states, incomplete data sets, and a lack of funding.
“It’s an enormous gap,” said Andrew Morral, head of gun violence research at the non-partisan RAND Corporation. “The US has an incredible database on traffic fatalities going back forty years with all this information about road conditions, weather, and what the driver was doing, and it’s very useful for research. We just don’t have anything like that for violence research.”
“It’s an enormous gap”
The stark difference in data quality is matched by a gap in the attention that road traffic deaths and gun deaths receive in the scientific literature.
In the decade 2004-2014, road traffic deaths killed around 415,000 people in the US. Gun violence claimed around 350,000 lives in the same period. But while vehicular deaths generated 44,710 publications in the scientific literature, only 1,738 scientific articles focus on firearms injuries.
Funding the NVDRS is a pre-requisite for rigorous investigation, Morral said. Without a reliable federal database, researchers are dependent on a small number of existing studies.
All eyes on Dickey
The Dickey amendment never explicitly banned research into gun violence, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention effectively stopped researching the issue when it passed. According to the pressure group Everytown for Gun Safety, CDC funding for firearm injury prevention plummeted 96% between 1996 and 2012.
Jay Dickey, the late Republican congressman who proposed the amendment, himself co-authored a Washington Post op-ed in 2012 noting the “chilling effect” that the legislation had on the research community — an effect that was entirely unintentional, he claimed.
“It falls woefully short of what is needed.”
The clarification may free up funding for research, though gun violence researchers remain cautious. “It’s pretty minor,” said Andrew Morral, who pointed to the lack of substantial investment to make that happen.
Others were more blunt: “It falls woefully short of what is needed,” Professor Matthew Miller of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health told The Trace.
Indeed, when President Obama issued an executive order encouraging federal agencies to research gun violence after the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012, very little changed. Alex Leshner, CEO emeritus of of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told CNN that those efforts came to “nothing,” adding: “It’s one of the few public health problems facing the country about which we have basically no scientific base of information to guide us how to deal with it.”
Data versus culture
The debate on gun control will not be solved by data alone — commentators on both sides of the argument have long lamented its descent into a “culture war” in which seemingly irreconcilable worldviews are pitted against each other.
But part of the problem, according to some researchers, is the lack of reliable data from which to craft effective policy proposals.
“They aren’t both right.”
“There are policies that experts on both sides of the gun debate believe have opposite effects,” said Morral, citing discussion of gun-free zones as one example among many. Some believe they invite attackers who know they won’t meet with armed resistance; others believe that fewer guns equals fewer shootings.
“They aren’t both right,” said Morral, “this is a factual matter and it could be resolved with good science — but it’s one of the very basic questions that we just don’t have the answers to.”
Funding and expanding the NVDRS is one small step towards understanding the scale of the problem. A spokesperson for the CDC said that the agency “has and will continue to support data collection activities and analyses to document the public health burden of firearm injuries in the U.S” but “awaits further guidance and direction from Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Jblankster)