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AAAS President Says Gun Violence Research Can Wait No Longer

News, January 23, 2015 Dr. Schaal Halfsize


Barbara Schaal, president of AAAS, declares in an Op-ed that Congress needs to resume funding for gun violence research to help experts design solutions to limit deaths. | Schaal

Barbara Schaal, president of AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific organization, is calling on Congress to restore federal funding for research on gun violence and set aside ideological differences to help save the lives of some 30,000 Americans felled by gun-related violence each year.

“The scientific community has long recognized the urgent need to summon science with its adherence to the identification, collection, and inspection of data, so that evidence may emerge and guide public policy,” Schaal wrote in an Op-ed published on 12 Sept. in The Hill, adding later, “Such scientific research is lacking in response to today’s gun violence epidemic. Instead, ideological debates have ensued and stalled the consideration of meaningful policies that would save thousands of lives.”

Schaal said Congress must first restore the ability of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to fund research on gun violence and prevention strategies. For the last two decades, Congress has attached to the annual appropriations bill that funds the CDC, language barring the agency responsible for safeguarding public health from using its funding “to advocate or promote gun control.”

When Congress first added the language in 1996, lawmakers also cut the CDC’s budget by $2.6 million – the exact amount the agency had spent the year before on such research. The agency got the message, and despite President Barack Obama having issued an executive order in 2013, calling on the CDC to resume funding in the wake of the mass shooting in December 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the CDC made no changes.

Instead, the CDC has been funding carefully prescribed research around gun violence topics such as the prevention of youth violence. Yet, the research lacks focus on the fundamentals necessary to bend the curve on deaths and injuries, researchers and scientists say.

Schaal said the CDC should work with other federal agencies and the states to collect “validated data” that can become the basis for policy solutions. Specifically, she points to the need to expand the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), which collects violent deaths statistics from death certificates, medical examiner and coroner files, law enforcement records, and crime laboratories. The system now receives data from only 32 states, and, scientists say, because some information is not required to be reported, more comprehensive data are needed.

In the absence of a prominent CDC role, many leading academic institutions and agencies have stepped up research on multiple aspects of gun violence.  The Defense, Justice and Homeland Security departments are studying the effectiveness of “smart gun” technology.  

“It’s not so much that there is a gap in what we know, it’s that there is no part of this problem about which we know enough,” says Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, director of the University of California at Davis’ Violence Prevention Research Program. The California Legislature approved $5 million in June to establish a University of California research center on firearm violence.  

Philip Cook, a Sanford professor of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who has written extensively on gun violence, says more robust federal funding would certainly “accelerate progress in developing evidence on the nature of the problem and the efficacy of alternative interventions.”

Most studies on gun violence “are really done on a shoe string and with easily available data,” and “we don’t have a reporting system that is as standardized or reliable as it should be,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, Maryland.

Dr. Stephen Hargarten, director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wis., regularly sees the impact of gun violence on emergency room patients. Gun violence, he says, needs to be fought “no different than any other diseases.”

Schaal, who is Washington University’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor of Biology, agrees and says restoring and expanding CDC funding will help spur the development of “effective and proven interventions.”  

“As people, as families, as communities, and as a nation, we need to put ideology aside and recognize that scientifically tested results can help guide decision-makers in promoting public health while preserving Second Amendment rights,” wrote Schaal.

“This year, we will lose an estimated 30,000 Americans to gun violence. Research can wait no longer. Our policymakers must enable scientists and society to seek the readily testable knowledge that can save lives.”