Once at Odds, Policymaker, Researcher Now Agree on Need for Gun-Violence Research

It’s time to renew federal funding for firearm injury prevention research.
Erin Heath, AAAS, with Daniel Webster, Mark Rosenberg, and Robert Cook-Deegan. Former Congressman Jay Dickey participated by telephone. | Kate Lewis Photography

Research into injuries and deaths caused by guns has been stalled for 20 years, since Congress directed a federal agency to stop any research that could be considered promoting gun control. The 1996 directive and an associated funding cut led to a 96% drop in funding for firearm injury prevention research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many federal researchers, unwilling to test the parameters of the law, stopped all research involving guns.

Now, in a dramatic reversal, Jay Dickey, the former Congressman who pushed for the freeze on gun research, along with Mark Rosenberg, the public health researcher who had led the CDC center that funded the research, and who says he was fired from that post as a result of the controversy, are together calling for a renewal of federal research funding.

The two described how they developed an unlikely friendship, and a found a shared interest in preventing gun violence while protecting gun ownership rights, at the 2016 AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy, held 14-15 April in Washington D.C. The panel was moderated by Erin Heath, associate director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations, and Robert Cook-Deegan of Duke University and Arizona State University.

“At one time, I thought that research was tantamount to gun control,” Dickey said. “But having a friendship with Mark, I have now come back around to where I’m seeing that research is important and that we can do the research without endangering the second amendment or having gun control.”

“[W]e think the way out of this horrendous morass, where our country is gripped with horrendous deaths, is through science,” Rosenberg said. “We think science is the only way out.”

When Rosenberg began his work at the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in 1994, the leading cause of death for people ages 1 to 44 were car crashes and firearm deaths. While the United States has made tremendous progress in protecting people who are in car crashes by passing laws that required redesigning cars and roads to include safety features such as seat belts, air bags and median barriers, we have not done the same for gun safety, Rosenberg said. In some states, gun-related deaths now exceed car crash fatalities, he said. Homicides using guns have dropped dramatically since the mid 1990s, but the United States continues to have the highest rate of firearm deaths from assaults and accidents compared to other developed countries.

The first firearm prevention study the CDC’s Injury Center funded showed that people in homes with guns had a 170% increased risk of homicide, and almost a 400% increase of death by suicide using guns. “These are huge increases in risks,” Rosenberg said. “The research found that not only did having a firearm in the home not protect you, it put you at much greater risk.” Afterwards, the researcher began telling people about his research, and advocated against owning a gun. While his advocacy was not funded by or related to the CDC, it drew the attention of the National Rifle Association and Congress, including Dickey.

Rosenberg first met Dickey, a Republican who represented Arkansas from 1994-1999, at a Congressional appropriations hearing in 1996. Dickey grilled Rosenberg, saying the research was anti-gun and threatened gun ownership. Following the hearing, Congress passed an amendment named for Dickey that said no CDC funds “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” It also took away the $2.6 million that CDC was using for gun violence prevention research and restricted it for use on traumatic brain injury research.

In 2013, following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama ordered the CDC to resume funding research into the causes of gun violence. He also called on Congress to give the Center $10 million for that purpose, but Congress has not included it in subsequent budgets. The CDC created plans to increase spending on studies addressing firearm injury prevention, but is waiting for Congress to provide new funding for that purpose.

After the 1996 hearing, Dickey’s staff invited Rosenberg to answer some technical questions. Afterwards, Dickey asked to meet Rosenberg, and the two found common interests in their children. They continued talking and became friends over the years, Rosenberg related. Eventually, after Dickey was no longer in Congress, they returned to the topic of guns, and Rosenberg learned how important owning guns are to some people’s identity, while Dickey realized that research could be the key to preventing guns being used illegally and by people who shouldn’t have them. They published an op-ed in The Washington Post in December and issued a joint statement at the AAAS Forum calling for a dramatic increase in funding for gun-violence prevention research. Both also agree that federal agencies should still abide by the Dickey clause forbidding them from advocating against gun ownership.

"It’s not that you can’t find answers, it’s that you can’t do it in your head. It takes research,” Rosenberg said. The two still disagree over how that research should be done, however. Rosenberg supports doing social science research to understand the factors and relationships of different variables that lead to gun injury and death. Dickey would prefer federal money be spent for research in a laboratory and on technical means to enhance gun safety and reduce gun-related mortality.

Despite the CDC ban, funding from other government agencies and private foundations has allowed research on gun violence prevention to continue, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Webster’s research has found some gun policies that are very effective at reducing gun violence, such as universal background checks coupled with handgun purchaser licensing, also have the support of the majority of gun owners. Just making data available about tracing guns used in crimes was also effective at pressuring the 1% of dealers who sell 57% of the guns involved in crime to change their practices, Webster said. (However, the dealers reversed those changes when Congress passed a law making the data inaccessible.)

“Often there’s no statistical difference between gun owners and non-gun owners,” in support for policies designed to keep guns out of dangerous hands, Webster said. The difference is that gun owners often don’t trust that the government will carry out those policies fairly. “We have to find ways to do this that people trust,” he said.