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Gun Violence Research Urgently Needs Funding Green Light

AAAS is urging Congress to remove funding restrictions on gun violence research that lawmakers have kept in place for two decades. | Kevin McCoy/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Removal of a decades-old restriction that has largely halted federal funding for gun violence research by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention can give policymakers evidence-based tools to help address a pressing public health crisis, said AAAS Chief Operating Officer Celeste Rohlfing during an interview with a leading Austrian public radio station. 

Research is the methodology of science,” said Rohlfing in calling on Congress to lift its restriction on gun violence research. “It is not itself a political issue, and it must be made available to help address public health crises.”

Scientific research by one of the nation’s most respected agencies responsible for safeguarding public health has the ability to deepen understanding of the risk factors facing those most vulnerable to gun violence, assist in the design of interventions by federal, state and local policymakers, and boost the development of smart-gun technologies to prevent injuries and deaths, Rohlfing added.

Certainly, if they could have continued to pursue in-depth gun violence research then we would have more information about the risk, and protective factors that are associated with gun violence, and we might even have more technological innovations that prevent gun violence today,” said Rohlfing during an interview first aired 16 August on Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, ORF.

A succession of horrific mass shootings has recently heightened public unease over gun violence, and renewed attention on the issue. Such concern could prompt policymakers to revisit funding for gun violence research by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said Rohlfing.   

AAAS has engaged in a years-long effort to get Congress to lift the restriction on research funding to better understand and curb gun violence. AAAS hosted a forum, has held conferences, written letters to the White House, administration and congressional officials, held scientific symposia, including one that offer a related news briefing at AAAS' 2014 Annual Meeting in Chicago. Late last year, AAAS also joined 140 medical, public-health, scientific and academic organizations in urging Congress to drop a legislative funding restriction.

“Quite aside from getting past the 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,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals in announcing AAAS’ participation in the group letter that was sent to members of the House and Senate appropriations committees in December 2015.

AAAS began calling for unbridled scientific research in the wake of the 2013 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. At that time, Holt’s predecessor, Alan Leshner, chaired a prestigious Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council panel that identified the top federal research priorities awaiting investigation to help inform the public health consequences of gun violence, recommendations that remain relevant today, Rohlfing said.

The restriction dates to 1996 when then Rep. Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican, added language to an appropriations bill, barring the CDC from funding gun violence research efforts that “advocate or promote gun control.” Dickey, who has since renounced his position and called for a resumption of CDC research, also won adoption of a separate amendment that stripped $2.6 million from CDC’s annual appropriation, an amount equal to what the center had spent on gun violence research the year before.

The CDC understood the message and has since avoided engaging in research specifically aimed at gun violence, leaving states, universities and private foundations to pursue the issue. The restriction, which Congress has kept in place for 20 years, has had a chilling effect on federal gun violence research Rohlfing said.

Still, AAAS will continue to press Congress to remove research barriers, she said, particularly in the light of growing public attention on instances of gun violence. “We can be hopeful that we can continue to talk about this issue in the public, and change, perhaps, the discourse and get people to understand that science has a role here. Gun violence, again, is a public health issue. It needs to be better informed by scientific research,” Rohlfing added.


Anne Q. Hoy

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