Despite Funding Thaw, U.S. Gun Violence Researchers Just ‘Fit Around a Conference Table’

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Anti-gun violence protest by Brooklyn, N.Y., students. Photo by j_bary via Flickr

Although the decades-long “freeze” on funding for gun violence research by the federal government has slowly begun to thaw, more support is critical to understanding—and preventing—firearm deaths, warns one of the nation’s leading foundations.

Serious scientific inquiries into gun violence declined by 60 percent since 1990 after the National Rifle Association persuaded its allies in Congress to curtail spending on research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other bodies that appeared to support gun control, the Joyce Foundation said in a report summing up its own grantmaking in the field.

While funding prospects have improved, thanks to grants from private donors and from state governments, as well as a congressional “clarification” last year that its ban did not apply to all gun violence research, the field still remains “impoverished,” the foundation said.

“These actions are meaningful and should be applauded, but fall far short of creating a vibrant, sustainable field,” the foundation said. “The group of career gun violence researchers who are actively publishing (now) is so small they can fit around a conference table.”

Earlier this year a $50 million budget allocation for gun violence prevention research was passed in the House, but its fate in the Senate remains uncertain, the report said.

The Chicago-based foundation’s warning came in a report documenting its own efforts over the past 25 years to support research on the topic, which it said had achieved “significant leaps in knowledge” about the links between guns and violent behavior.

“During a time when few other private funders invested, and federal funding was nearly non-existent, Joyce’s support has helped produce some of the most seminal research findings on gun violence prevention, building and sustaining the field,” said Nina E. Vinik, director of Joyce’s Gun Violence Prevention & Justice Reform Program, in a statement accompanying the report.

“With new interest from philanthropy and policy makers in supporting research on gun violence, we offer this report as a roadmap for how to invest in this issue in a way that builds on existing knowledge and enhances our shared commitment to public health and safety.”

Since 1993, the Joyce Foundation provided 141 grants totaling $32 million under its Gun Violence Program, amounting to one-third of its total spending; and last year it announced an additional grants of $3.5 million allocated to 14 research projects.

The report said one of the key takeaways from its funded research over the past two decades was the need for a “public health approach to gun violence.”

Joyce-funded researchers called for an approach comparable to other successful injury-prevention efforts launched in the U.S., in areas like road and automobile design and the risk of smoking—an approach the report said had “opened the door to ever more research on ways to prevent gun violence.”

One of the key projects supported was the development, expansion, and improvement of the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) which compiles one of the nation’s most comprehensive and accurate databases of gun deaths in a broad range of categories, including unintentional deaths and homicides committed by law enforcement.

In its report, the foundation identified 10 major “seminal” findings of the research it supported as a “roadmap” to future scholarship:

    • The U.S. has 25 times the gun homicide rate of comparable countries—“largely attributable to the availability of firearms.” The U.S. has a higher rate of household firearm ownership than any other developed country.
    • Gun availability is correlated to higher rates of gun violence. States with a higher prevalence of firearm ownership have higher rates of suicide and homicide among women, men, and children. States with the highest prevalence of guns had nine times the rate of unintentional firearm deaths as states with the lowest gun prevalence.
    • Rural and urban areas experience different impacts from gun violence. For example, rural counties had more than double the rate of unintentional firearm death among children compared to urban counties.
    • Firearms are the most lethal means of suicide, with a fatality rate over 90 percent—a finding which led to the conclusion that limiting a suicidal person’s access to firearms is an evidence-based measure for reducing suicide risk.
    • Self-defense gun use is rare, and respondents in one survey were three times more likely to indicate they were recently victimized with a gun than with having used one in self-defense.
    • Of gun owners with children, only 30 percent store all guns in the safest manner (locked and unloaded). Unsafe storage practices also contribute to an estimated 380,000 guns stolen annually in the United States.
    • The unregulated secondary market for firearms is a significant source of illegal guns used in crime, with some 22 percent of gun sales occurring without a background check.
    • Strong gun laws reduce deaths. Comprehensive background checks implemented through a permit-to-purchase regime have been shown to reduce rates of gun trafficking, homicide and suicide.
    • Intimate partner homicide can be reduced by state laws that prohibit dating partners and convicted domestic abusers from owning firearms.
    • State and local law enforcement oversight of gun dealers, including licensing, inspections, and stings, is effective at reducing illegal gun trafficking.

The report was prepared by Ted Alcorn, an Associate in Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and research director for Everytown For Gun Safety.

Editor’s Note: The Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report, received a grant in 2010 from the Joyce Foundation to support a Media Fellowship program for Midwestern journalists on covering firearm violence and prevention.

The Joyce Foundation Report, “25 Years of Impactful Grant Making,” along with links to the research findings mentioned above, can be downloaded here.

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