Rush D. Holt, chief executive officer of AAAS, today reaffirmed the association's call for better understanding of the root causes of gun violence by freeing up research funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that has been essentially frozen for nearly two decades.
"It is time for Congress to approve sensible steps to study gun violence as a public health issue," Holt said. "Quite aside from the ongoing political debates over gun control, it is essential that unbiased scientific research be used to gather data on this spreading epidemic that claims so many lives each year. The epidemiology of gun violence has been underfunded for far too long." Holt added that there also is a role for science to play in providing technological solutions to gun violence, including safer guns that can only be fired by authorized users.
The freeze on CDC's funding of research on gun violence began in 1996 with an amendment to an omnibus spending bill that deleted $2.6 million from the agency's budget, the amount CDC had spent the previous year on gun research. Congress also added language 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."
The CDC interpreted that to mean it should avoid spending any money to study gun violence, and Congress has inserted similar language in CDC spending bills for the past two decades. The most recent House Appropriations Committee bill for labor, health and human services continues the general provision "to prevent any funds provided from being spent on gun research, to include collecting data for potential future research, such as was proposed in the budget request for the National Violent Death Reporting System."
The report language for the bill also states: "The Committee reminds CDC that the longstanding general provision's intent is to protect rights granted by the Second Amendment. The restriction is to prevent activity that would undertake activities (to include data collection) for current or future research, including under the title 'gun violence prevention,' that could be used in any manner to result in a future policy, guidelines, or recommendations to limit access to guns, ammunition, or to create a list of gun owners."
AAAS has previously issued letters and made statements on the importance of research to better understand and curb gun violence. In January 2013, former AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner sent letters to U.S. President Barack Obama and two congressional representatives commending their efforts to end the long-standing federal funding freeze on gun violence research.
"I write to applaud you for supporting research as part of your Administration's initiatives on reducing gun violence," Leshner wrote. He agreed, as Obama noted in a recent executive action, that "critical public health research" is needed to better understand and potentially help reduce gun violence. Such studies also should include social, behavioral, and economic sciences, Leshner added. Obama's presidential memorandum called on scientific agencies, including the CDC, to study the causes of gun violence and how best to prevent it.
AAAS also hosted a symposium and related news briefing at its 2014 Annual Meeting in Chicago. One study presented at the meeting noted the impact of gun laws. It found that the state of Missouri's 2007 repeal of its permit-to-purchase handgun law led to a 16% increase in murder rates and a 23% increase in firearm homicide rates between 2008 and 2012. In contrast, the national murder rate dropped by 5% during the same period. "An additional 60 murders a year were attributable to this policy change," said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and lead author of the study. It also found a doubling of guns diverted to criminals shortly after their sale, and a sharp increase of guns flowing from Missouri to nearby states with tougher gun laws.