When the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called gun violence a "serious public health threat" in a recent interview, it may have seemed like garden-variety politics. It was anything but. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC's director, was ending more than two decades of official near-silence on the topic — and suggesting a better approach may finally be on the way.
The last time a CDC director attempted to address gun violence was in the mid-1990s, when some of the agency's research had connected home firearm ownership to higher rates of gun deaths. A Republican Congress, heeding industry lobbyists, promptly passed legislation blocking the CDC from spending resources to "advocate or promote gun control." For good measure, it also cut $2.6 million from the agency's budget — the exact amount spent on gun research the prior year.
Over the next quarter-century, virtually all federally funded gun research ground to a halt. With few grants available, academics avoided the issue. Published research fell by 64% between 1998 and 2012. Although gun violence is the second-leading cause of death among young Americans, the U.S. government spent only $12 million to study the topic — extending a grand total of 32 grants — between 2007 and 2018. Cancer, the third-leading cause, received $335 million a year.
The result of this abdication is that very basic policy questions remain unanswered, even as firearms cause more than 30,000 U.S. deaths a year. Do restrictions on assault weapons reduce violence? Are there "best practices" that could prevent suicides, homicides or accidental injuries? What reforms could impede mass shootings?
By one estimate, the government spends about 1.6% as much on such questions as it does researching traffic deaths. Such willful ignorance is shameful in its own right. But the lack of solid research and data makes responding to America's epidemic of gun violence that much harder. Evaluating current initiatives is needlessly difficult, while novel approaches — such as community-based "violence interrupter" programs — proceed without a sound empirical basis.
Thankfully, things are starting to change. In 2018, Congress effectively lifted the restrictions on federal gun research. The next year, lawmakers approved $25 million for such studies, split between the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. With Walensky now making the issue a priority, real progress seems possible.
Yet pitfalls remain. One is that Congress must remain committed to funding gun-violence research (whether at the CDC or elsewhere) despite opposition from Second Amendment absolutists. The federal government's effort to reduce traffic fatalities — widely considered a success — took decades of sustained attention and generous funding. Gun-violence research deserves no less.
A related risk is politics. Few issues divide Americans more than guns, and plenty of Republican lawmakers still cynically conflate research funding with anti-gun activism. But objective research that can shed light on shared goals — such as reducing accidents and suicides — should be able to command support among lawmakers of good faith, whatever their views on gun rights.