Moving the target on gun research

By Jonathan Purtle

Injuries are the leading cause of death among people age 44 and younger in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Center for Injury Prevention and Control is the federal entity charged with reducing this burden. Visit the Center’s website and you’ll find guidance on how to prevent pretty much every type of injury imaginable—such as those resulting from motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, fireworks, and playgrounds just to name a few. 

When it comes to preventing injuries caused by nail guns, which are responsible for an estimated 37,000 emergency department visits annually, the CDC is “Nailing Down the Need for Nail Gun Safety.” But when it comes to real guns, which were responsible for an estimated 73,883 injuries and 31,672 deaths in 2012, you won’t find a bullet of guidance about preventing firearm-related injuries on the CDC website. Seem strange?

An article recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association explains how gun rights advocates have put the silencer on firearm injury prevention activities for the past 17 years.

Back in the late 1980s-early 1990s, the CDC was churning out firearm injury prevention research. In 1996, some members of Congress, presumably feeling threatened by what the CDC was finding, attempted to abolish the Center for Injury Prevention and Control.  While unsuccessful, they were able to reduce the Center’s budget by $2.6 million—the exact amount that the Center spent on gun research the year prior.

The pro-gun contingent also inserted language into a piece of legislation which stated 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.” Fearing that the dissemination of firearm research findings and informative materials could be construed as “advocacy” and lead to a total loss of funding, administrative officials at the CDC opted to steer clear of gun-related activities which could be interpreted as such.

In 2011,the legislative language was expanded after high quality research found that guns didn’t keep people safe from bad guys—striking a heavy blow to gun advocates’ rhetoric. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at University of Pennsylvania found that people who were carrying a gun when they were assaulted in Philadelphia were over four times more likely to be shot during the incident than those that weren’t carrying a gun when they were assaulted in the city.  Legislative language was added to extend the prohibition to all Department of Health and Human Service agencies, not just the CDC.

If any good is to come from the events of Newton, Connecticut, it’s likely to be an end to the false moratorium on firearm injury research and prevention. Obama recently issued a Presidential Memorandum which directs the CDC and other agencies in the Department and Health and Human Services to conduct gun research. President Obama’s plan to reduce gun violence explicitly calls out the ambiguous, but intimidating, legislative language and states that it should not be interpreted as prohibiting firearm injury research and prevention activities. As the plan states, “research on gun violence is not advocacy; it is critical public health research that gives all Americans information they need.”

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