Federal Gun Research Cutbacks Starting to Bite, say Researchers

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High Schoolers at Alderdice High School in Pittsburgh, PA.protest school shootings. Photo by Mark Dixon via Flickr

A diverse coalition of groups is trying to pick up the slack where the federal government has failed in providing funding for gun violence research, but representatives say government action and funding are more important now than ever in supporting gun violence research.

The federal government has shied away from allocating funds to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study gun violence ever since the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which prevents the CDC from advocating or promoting gun control. While the amendment doesn’t outright prevent gun violence research, it has greatly limited the amount of federal resources allocated to the field.

Philanthropies, institutes and non-profit organizations have all tried to fill the gap, but a lack of public resources for gun violence research has had an impact on the number of scholars who want to enter the field, say researchers.

“The one challenge we’ve faced over many, many years is that there haven’t been many resources available, and that’s limited the pool of researchers to do the work,” Dr. Cassandra Crifasi, Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told The Crime Report.

“I think there’s been some folks who have picked other topics to work in and haven’t encouraged their mentees to enter the field because of concerns about funding.”

Workforce Shortage

Crifasi says it’s important that there are organizations and philanthropies taking interest and funding the research, but a lack of resources being put into the field on a broader level has contributed to a “workforce shortage.”

More resources, Crifasi said, should be put into training new gun violence researchers.

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation announced in May a National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research backed by a $20 million seed donation. The foundation—along with partner RAND Corporation—is hoping to support more targeted research on gun violence issues.

The foundation says it has received a substantial amount of interest from researchers across a variety of fields in helping with the collaborative. Asheley Van Ness, the foundation’s Director of Criminal Justice, said that by increasing the amount of projects in the field, they’re hoping to see an increase in young-researcher numbers.

Nina Vinik, Program Director for the Gun Violence Prevention Program at the Joyce Foundation, agrees. As more projects become available and visible in the public, she hopes more researchers will gravitate to the field.

“We definitely don’t have a problem with there being too much money,” Vinik said in an interview. “There is a small field of researchers studying gun violence prevention.

“The funding has been limited for so long, it has operated as a disincentive for early-career researchers to get into this field, because it is so hard to fund the work.”

Gun researchers reaped a small victory in March when the omnibus spending bill clarified the Dickey Amendment’s original language, saying the CDC could conduct research into gun violence. But despite this recognition, Congress has yet to allocate more funding for the CDC to carry-out gun violence research.

“It’s basically an unfunded mandate at this point,” Crifasi said. “Congress has repeatedly decided to not provide them resources, and if they want to fund gun violence research then they’d have to pull resources away from other topics or some other program—and I think there are lots of reasons why that would not be the top choice.”

House Republican appropriators rejected a proposal to allocate $10 million in funding to the CDC for gun violence research last month. The proposal, which would have been added to the House’s fiscal 2019 Labor-HHS-Education spending bill, was overruled 32-20.

“They’re free to research anything they care to research,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told Politico. “I don’t want to spend my time on the floor — and hopefully this [bill] comes to the floor — in a gun control debate.”

But to Vinik, the politicization of gun violence doesn’t impact the work that the Joyce Foundation conducts. It also doesn’t override the fact that gun violence is a public health issue. Because of this, Vinik believes research should be funded in the same vein as cancer, diabetes, obesity, and opioid-abuse research.

And although more groups are trying to fill the gaps where the federal government has fallen flat, the magnitude of the problem makes researchers desperate for federal dollars to properly address the issue.

“Philanthropy can’t make up for federal funding—but hopefully, it can galvanize it,” Van Ness said. “Government research has been stymied for more than two decades.

“And although there have been efforts by private philanthropy to address this gap, most notably by the Joyce Foundation, foundations can’t match the spending power of the federal government.”

Marianne Dodson is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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