In the line of fire

By Rebecca Trager
Research Europe
07-02-2013

President Barack Obama has thrown his weight behind research into gun violence. But whether this previously neglected field will receive the necessary financial and political support remains to be seen.

Stephen Teret was meeting a student to collaborate on a paper about personalised guns, which only an authorised user can fire, when news broke of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on 14 December. “It was one of the saddest things that I had heard in my entire career,” says Teret, a legal and public-health expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Teret has studied gun violence for more than 30 years; he was the founding director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins. Few other research fields have faced as much hostility, he says, acknowledging that he and his colleagues have received death threats.

In 1996, this hostility became codified. Congress, with support from the National Rifle Association, passed an amendment to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s appropriations that year prohibiting the agency from funding any research that could be used to “advocate or promote gun control”. The $2.6 million (€1.9m) the agency had reported spending on firearms-related research was redirected toward brain-injury research. “People stopped doing gun-related research and turned their attention to other public health problems,” Teret recalls.

The fatal shootings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook changed the landscape. Among the executive actions announced by President Obama on 16 January was a directive for the CDC and other scientific agencies to research causes and prevention of gun violence.

The next day, Kathleen Sebelius, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, which houses CDC and the National Institutes of Health, said her department would “mobilise” to support the President’s agenda. HHS is “committed to re-engaging gun-violence research” at CDC and NIH, she said.

“It is an enormous change,” says Teret. “It means, once again, people will feel encouraged to address a very severe public health problem, and they will probably be able to come up with effective interventions that will reduce the incidence of gun violence and save lives.”

The December killings have already prompted Johns Hopkins University to hold an international meeting in January on how research into gun violence can inform policy. Possible research questions include the types of gun used in murders and how to reduce suicides and accidental shootings through interventions such as gun storage.

The American Public Health Association also welcomed the president’s order. Obama has “unleashed the power of innovation”, says executive director Georges Benjamin.

However, federal agencies don’t have extra money earmarked for research into gun violence and the current fiscal environment could make it difficult to obtain such funding. The attention on CDC and firearms research could also make the agency a lightning rod for the politics of gun control.

Opponents of research into gun violence as a public health issue have already been vocal. Miguel Faria, a retired neurosurgeon and past editor of the Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia, calls the field “pseudo-research”. CDC-sponsored studies in this area have begun with the predetermined conclusion that “guns are bad and they should be eradicated”, he says.

Faria, who says he hasn’t been funded by the NRA or gun manufacturers, sat on the CDC review committee that determined the scientific merit of grant proposals for injury research from 2002 to 2005. He says many of these grants lacked or misused traditional statistical tools such as relative risks, confidence intervals and probability values. Teret says that Faria is seen as “pro-gun” and that “the weight of science is against him”. The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.

The US has been down a similar path before. In the late 1960s and 1970s, US automobile manufacturers fought federal efforts to make cars safer arguing that people, not cars, cause accidents.

But federally funded researchers were able to determine the risk factors for car crashes, and how to minimise them. “We were able to win those fights because we had the data,” Teret says. There was much more money and data available on road-safety research than has been the case for studies of gun violence, he says.

Thanks to seatbelts, airbags, collapsible steering columns and the like, fatalities per mile driven have fallen by more than 90 per cent since the 1950s. Teret and his colleagues hope that a programme of rigorous, well-funded research, decoupled from policy or advocacy, might have a similar effect on the 30,000 firearm fatalities in the US each year.

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