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What we don’t know about gun violence

Semi-automatic rifles are seen for sale in a gun shop in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 4, 2017.  ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

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There has been little research into gun violence in the United States in more than 20 years.

Back in 1996, the Centers for Disease Control had a budget of $2.6 million dedicated to this area of study. But that same year, the funds started to dry up. At the time Mark Rosenberg was researching the causes of gun violence as director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

There was an attack on behalf of the NRA [National Rifle Association] that was led by a congressman from rural Arkansas, named Jay Dickey. And at an appropriations hearing, they basically ambushed the director of the CDC and myself. And after that hearing, they succeeded in taking away $2.6 million, which was everything that we were using for gun violence prevention research,” Rosenberg said. 

At the time, the Republican-majority Congress imposed other measures, said Rosenberg.  

“They passed some appropriations language, and it said none of the funds that go to CDC shall be used to promote or advocate gun control. Now it did not ban federally funded research, but it said basically we could not lobby for gun control legislation. Now CDC was not in the business of lobbying for gun control legislation; we were in the business of doing research. But it really sent a chill throughout the system.”

Rosenberg spoke to Marketplace Weekend host Lizzie O’Leary about the impact of this reduction in federal dollars for gun violence prevention in the U.S. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Lizzie O’Leary: What are the implications of taking away two and a half million dollars?

Mark Rosenberg: People usually think that a research program will grow with time, as people start to see that you’re getting good results. Programs usually grow. The message here was not only was this program not going to grow, but it’s not going to exist. There’s not going to be any funding for extramural research on the topic of gun violence prevention. And it had a chilling effect beyond just the injury center. It went to other agencies that thought that they might look at the relationship, say, of alcohol use and gun violence, or drug abuse and gun violence. Even at the National Institute of Justice, it chilled their ardor for pursuing this area.

O’Leary: One question I have looking at this now, talking about guns in America is so fraught. But, what would you study if you could? What would you study now?

Rosenberg: Well, I think it’s not really rocket science but there’s basically four questions that we need to answer if we want to have an impact on reducing gun violence. The first question is, what’s the problem? How many people get shot? Who are they? Where? When? How does it happen, with what kind of guns? What’s the relationship between the shooter and the victim, or if it’s suicide. The second question you want to answer is, what are the causes? What’s the role of mental illness? What’s the role of drugs, what’s the role of domestic violence? What’s the role of terrorism? Third question is, what works to prevent it? What might stop this gun violence from even happening? What kind of things can we test? And that’s really important. And the fourth question is, how do you do it? Once you have a program that works, how do you scale that up and how would you implement the results?

O’Leary: The federal government is not the only player in town. I mean, there are think tanks, there are universities. There are all sorts of entities that could do private research. Did taking the money away from federal research affect what other entities did?

Rosenberg: It did. I think it had a chilling effect across the board. Even foundations that had been supporting it and had started to make this a priority were undermined and cut back. And the message went out that this is not a welcome area for researchers because your research and your funding are going to be much more difficult in other areas. The research arena is a market place, and people go to places where they can be funded to do their work.

To listen to the full interview, click on the media player above.  

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