The December 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn., reignited an urgent national conversation on stopping gun violence. But when lawmakers, activists, reporters and concerned citizens looked for research to guide them in what measures do and do not work, they noticed something curious: Although public health researchers were churning out an abundance of intriguing studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that research pretty much dried up around 1997.
It was no accident: In 1996, the Capitol Hill allies of gun-rights activists quietly wrote into law a prohibition against any use of funds by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "to advocate or promote gun control."
On Wednesday, a federal panel laid out a research agenda to revive this moribund corner of injury-prevention research. The Institute of Medicine did so in response to a request by the CDC and a group of public health philanthropies, acting on a slate of executive orders issued by President Obama in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
The list of questions that need to be answered with solid research is long, and the time horizon in which the Institute of Medicine believes they should be answered is short: In three years, the CDC, working with philanthropies and academic researchers, should conduct studies that tell us definitively who, where, why, when and how people are injured or die in gun-related incidents, what measures can help reduce such incidents, and how new technologies — including locking devices and owner interfaces that prevent a gun's use by anyone else — can help, the institute said.
Researchers should learn exactly why people own guns, and whether keeping guns in their homes makes them safer or puts them at greater risk of injury, said the institute. They should delve into the power of childhood education or prevention programs to see if they reduce later propensity to gun violence. And they should explore whether violent media content incites gun violence, and in whom.
The Obama administration's proposed 2014 budget requests $30 million to get this research underway. Of that, $20 million would expand the National Violent Death Reporting System, which now gathers gun violence statistics in only 18 states. Another $10 million would fund studies into the causes and prevention of gun violence.
The Institute of Medicine report, issued Wednesday, will likely not please gun-rights activists who believe that any research will encourage restrictions on gun ownership. But the panel drafting the research agenda did include at least one researcher — Florida State Universitycriminologist Gary Kleck — who has consistently generated evidence that unfettered legal gun ownership reduces violence.
"It doesn't matter that the work that I and others did 17 years ago answers many of these questions," said Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann, an emergency department physician and health analyst at the Santa Monica-based Rand Corporation. "People making day-to-day decisions about how to store their guns and whether they should own a gun are making those decisions based not on my work published more than a decade ago, but on what [National Rifle Assn. executive vice president] Wayne Pierre said last week," he added.
If policy aimed at reducing gun-related death and injuries is to be guided by good science and not heated rhetoric, said Kellermann, the research will need to be brought up to date.