Researchers begin the first wave of US-funded gun injury prevention work in decades

Research on injury prevention is deemed independent from advocacy group.
Research on injury prevention is deemed independent from advocacy group.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Once upon a time, way back in December 2019, US lawmakers made a decision that would allow federal agencies to fund gun violence prevention research for the first time in over two decades. And while so much has changed since then, some parts of the world barrel on as usual: Today, Sept. 30, awardees of the first research grants are starting their work.

Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the recipients of nearly $8 million in funding to 16 research groups across the US to study firearm injury prevention. Their objectives over the next few years are to find ways to enhance safety and lower gun deaths and crime, either by evaluating current strategies in practice or proposing new ones. Research grants on the same topic awarded by the US National Institutes of Health are still under consideration.

The total funding of $25 million represents a compromise made by lawmakers; Democrats had initially pushed for $50 million. “It won’t get us where we need to be, but it’s a great start,” Emmy Betz, the deputy director at the Program for Injury Prevention, Education and Research at the Colorado School of Public Health, told the Verge in 2019.

The new research projects breaks a 24-year hiatus on this kind of federally funded research. Back in 1996, US legislators passed the Dickey Amendment, which explicitly prohibited federal funding for any research that advocated for gun control. As a result, all federal funding for gun injury prevention screeched to a halt.

Jay Dickey, the representative from Arkansas for whom the amendment was named, told NPR in 2015 that he never intended for that to be the consequence. The spending bill that president Trump signed into law in 2018 clarified that the Dickey Amendment didn’t actually prohibit research on gun violence, which allowed the 16 projects today to kick off.

Despite the lack of federal funding, scientists have still been researching gun violence prevention; they’ve just had to work twice as hard to generate fiscal support. “Private foundations and increasingly state governments had stepped in to help fill the federal government gaps in funding for research on gun violence, but these were often smaller investments that did not always facilitate the type of big, longer-term research projects necessary to better understand and address this problem,” Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis, said in an email.

Kravitz-Wirtz received one of the CDC’s grants for research that will be focusing on following the long-term health of children who have been exposed either directly or indirectly to gun violence. Megan Ranney, an emergency room physician at Brown University who has been studying gun violence and received one of the CDC’s grants, tweeted that she’s spent the last few years doing advocacy work to create non-partisan gun research groups spearheaded by the medical community. Her project funded by the CDC will evaluate how different methods of bystander intervention training.

In 2019, there were over 39,000 gun deaths in the US, according to the nonprofit research group the Gun Violence Archive. This figure includes over 24,000 suicides and 400 mass shootings. That figure is roughly on par with gun deaths in 2017 (pdf). Although this newly funded research won’t lower gun deaths directly, it’s a start to understanding effective policies that can save lives in the future.