Universities step up gun violence research even as federal government shies away

Like many college presidents, Dr. Jay Perman reacted swiftly in the days following the deadly high school shooting in Florida.

He wrote an open letter to the University of Maryland, Baltimore community, saying he was horrified by the slaughter of children and slamming lawmakers for their inaction.

He also issued a call to action for the campus: “I'm eager to hear your ideas on how we might focus our research and teaching here at UMB to take up this fight against gun violence.”

Perman was not the only educator to call on academia to seek research-based solutions in the wake of recent mass shootings. Universities in Maryland and across the nation are stepping up their efforts on gun violence research, even as the federal government largely shies away from such studies because of the politics surrounding the issue.

Johns Hopkins University, home to the Center for Gun Policy and Research, already began looking at issues related to the recent Parkland shooting. At the University of Maryland, College Park, a newly formed action committee is focused on addressing issues such as gun violence using a public health approach.

“In public health, we’re about data,” said Boris Lushniak, dean of the public health school at College Park. “I want to be able to study this issue, to look at it and say, ‘What can we learn about gun violence so that at the end of the day, we can prevent gun violence?’ ”

Universities have a unique role to play in this field of study. Congress has limited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ability to fund research on gun violence for more than 20 years.

The shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have prompted scrutiny of the congressional restriction. Many Democratic lawmakers are pushing with renewed vigor for the end of the so-called Dickey Amendment, which has prohibited the CDC from using money to “advocate or promote gun control” since 1996. Opponents of the restriction say that without much CDC-funded research on gun violence, it’s difficult to understand the scope of the problem or how to stop it.

Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes recently joined two dozen Democrats in sending a letter asking for a hearing to be held on the need for increased funding for gun violence prevention research.

“Gun violence must be addressed and handled for what it is: a public health crisis,” the letter read. “However, the harmful ‘Dickey Amendment’ and its chilling effect on federally-supported gun violence prevention research has stymied our ability to address gun violence.”

A recent study in JAMA Networks, which publishes research from various medical journals, found that when compared with other leading causes of death, gun violence is associated with less funding and fewer research publications. The study found that between 2004 and 2015, gun violence research received just 1.6 percent of the funding that would be predicted based on the number of deaths it caused — $22 million instead of the expected $1.4 billion.

In Baltimore, Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health has run a nationally renowned gun policy and research center since 1995 — one year before the Dickey Amendment passed. The center’s research is largely funded by philanthropies and grant money, from groups like the Abell or Annie E. Casey foundations.

The center has produced research showing that domestic violence restraining orders that include gun restrictions can reduce partner homicides, that “safe gun storage laws” lead to fewer unintentional shooting deaths of children and that the majority of Americans support universal background checks.

And since the shooting in Parkland, the center has produced a working paper analyzing a proposed strategy for protecting schools from an active shooter. Responding to President Donald Trump’s proposal to arm teachers, the research asserts that teachers are unlikely to perform well in such a situation.

“You need research to spark a reasonable dialogue, rather than an emotionally-driven or fear-driven or politically-driven dialogue,” said the paper’s author, Sheldon Greenberg, a professor of management at the School of Education’s Division of Public Safety Leadership.

Greenberg said he anticipates the gun research and policy center will step up its focus on school shooting research in the wake of Parkland.

“After every incident, there’s a big fear about what we need to do,” he said. “More objective research will help the quality of discussion and maybe generate more rational discussion on how to deal with shooters.”

Mike McLively, a senior staff attorney with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco, said there’s been an uptick in recent years of states and universities working together to fill the research void left by the Dickey amendment.

“It’s great that states are stepping up, and that includes Maryland, but we really need to see more. We can plug the gap a little bit but until the federal government steps in, we’re still going to be just way in the hole,” he said. “It’s like any other public health epidemic. We need information to be able to make good decisions and understand which policies will make the most difference.”

California has led the way on gun research, launching a Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California Davis’ Sacramento campus last year. The center is funded by a $5 million, five-year appropriation from the state and sets out to understand the underlying causes of firearm violence and research the most effective ways to prevent it.

New Jersey and other state legislatures are looking to duplicate the model.

In Maryland, members of the General Assembly are looking to create a $5 million violence prevention fund and advisory council. The bill, cross-filed by Del. Brooke Lierman and Sen. Joan Carter Conway, would require that any programs receiving money from the fund be evaluated by an independent researcher.

A separate bill, sponsored by Del. Nick Mosby, would set aside $100,000 for research into the state’s firearms laws.

The Maryland Department of Health’s does not have any programs or funds specifically directed towards gun violence research. The department does collect data on gun violence through the Maryland Violent Death Reporting System.

Daniel Webster, director of the Hopkins gun research center, said it is vital to fund research that monitors the effects of Maryland’s gun laws and prevention efforts.

“There’s an interest across the board in the state funding research to answer these fundamental questions,” he said.

McLively said the progress states like California, New Jersey and Maryland are making could have a ripple effect.

“A lot of policies trickle up from the local level,” he said. “If enough states start doing this, I think the federal government will start funding gun violence research at a higher level.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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