COMMENTARY

Is It Time to Rethink Funding for Research on Gun Violence?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD

Disclosures

October 23, 2017

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine. As I'm presenting this to you, we're in the sad, sad, aftermath of the terrible murders in Las Vegas of people who attended a concert at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

Dozens and dozens of people killed, close to 550 people wounded. People are wondering, why did that happen? What law should be passed to prevent it? I think that there is a different issue that we ought to be revisiting. Way back in 1996, Congress, fearful that research might show the importance of restricting or controlling the purchase or use of firearms, passed a law telling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that there would no funds for research on gun violence.

It's one thing to get into battles about whether doctors should talk about guns with their patients; it's another thing to get into fights about whether we should restrict the sale of guns. Often, what we really need is just basic research to be done on what causes gun violence, ways to make guns safer, ways to prevent suicide by gun, and ways to prevent children from getting into trouble with guns. What are the most effective strategies for all of those things?

For the past 20 years, we haven't really had very much in the way of research undertaken to solve any of these puzzles. We're basically up against a gigantic public health problem—mass shootings and gun violence—all over the United States nearly every day. We're the only country on earth that seems to be afflicted with this particular terrible problem, and yet, we don't understand it partly because we've taken research on the topic off of the table.

There are some exceptions. The State of California, for example, has thrown a bit of money into a pot to fund gun research. There are foundations and philanthropic individuals, like [former New York City mayor] Michael Bloomberg, who's trying to support research on gun violence. Having the big horses of research, the CDC and the NIH, out of the game really hinders our understanding. We need that understanding.

We can fight all day long about whether it's too easy to buy guns, whether something ought to happen at gun shows, whether guns are useful in terms of protecting yourself from crime, or what kind of training might be best if you're going to buy a gun. On and on that goes.

Not knowing the answers to fundamental questions about what motivates people to be violent and what might deter people who are thinking about gun violence, is there any type of psychological or mental health profiling we could do?

Without having these types of topics studied—and maybe we wouldn't get an easy answer but we might learn something—we don't have the tools to have the right debates about what to do about it. I think we're way overdue to go back, revisit that prohibition that Congress put in, and say, " Given the tragedies like the one we saw in Las Vegas, given Newtown, given Columbine, given all sorts of horrific mass shootings from Oregon to Virginia to Nevada, we really have to rethink our fear of trying to understand the basics and the motivations behind gun violence." Operating in the blind is not the way to respond to this horrific problem.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU. Thank you for watching.

Talking Points: Is It Time to Rethink Funding for Research on Gun Violence?

Issues to Consider:

  1. The National Institute of Justice, an arm of the US 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 School shooting the year before.[1]

  2. The United States has the highest rate of gun-related deaths among industrialized countries, with more than 30,000 fatalities annually.[2]

  3. A 1996 congressional appropriations bill stipulated 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."[2]

  4. Similar restrictions were subsequently extended to other agencies (including the National Institutes of Health). The legislation does not ban gun-related research outright; it has been considered as having a negative impact by the research community.[2]

  5. Between 2004 and 2015, gun violence research was substantially underfunded and understudied relative to other leading causes of death, based on mortality rates for each cause.[2]

  6. The American Psychological Association contends that although it is important to recognize that most people suffering from a mental illness are not dangerous, for those persons at risk for violence due to mental illness, suicidal thoughts, or feelings of desperation, mental health treatment can often prevent gun violence.[3]

  7. The American Psychological Association also states that prevention efforts guided by research on developmental risk can reduce the likelihood that firearms will be introduced into community and family conflicts or criminal activity.[3]

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