Imagine these phrases plastered on the box of recently purchased gun. We see analogous sentences, “smoking seriously harms you and others around you” and “smoking causes lung cancer,” on cigarette boxes.
In 1964 the Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health, concluding that that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer and the leading cause of chronic bronchitis. Although the initial research may have been largely disputed by tobacco companies, the call for additional research and funds was answered, and preventative methods were explored.
During the 50 plus years since the initial report, the public health response has occurred through a variety of research and advocacy initiatives, and cigarettes have been mainly targeted through tobacco-use age restrictions and CDC-approved warning labels.
The same type of public health research and response seen with cigarettes has also occurred with alcohol poisoning and traffic accidents.
Yet, research funding from the federal government and collective acknowledgement of a public health concern have not occurred with gun violence.
Despite the immense data illustrating gun violence as a public health concern, political aims continue to restrict discussion, research and funds needed to properly assess gun violence prevention in America.
The President’s fiscal year 2017 budget request includes $10 million for gun violence prevention research, focusing on questions with the greatest potential public health impact. This request is part of the White House’s “Now is the Time” effort, which calls for research on gun violence prevention to provide Americans with needed information about this public health issue.
Every year since the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting President Obama has requested the same $10 million in funds for additional gun violence prevention research, and every year the funds have been denied.
Much of the unwillingness in Congress to address any funding related to gun violence research stems from the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which eliminated $2.6 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s budget for firearm-injury research.
The pressure to pass the 1996 bill is often attributed to a 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that found a “strong” association between guns in homes and an increased risk of homicide. The CDC’s research, both in 1996 and now, is independent, yet results from such studies were interpreted in a way that threatened any future gun violence research.
Despite the severity of gun violence in America, the bill’s continued interpretation under political aims makes research in this area a topic ineligible for discussion. The current dearth of funding has lead researchers to seek limited and insufficient private research funds.
Efforts to inform this serious public health concern are continually opposed by the National Rifle Association and thwarted by politicians unwilling to fund research that will inform the entire nation. These refusals stem from political affiliations and fallacies associated gun violence research–that research means “control.”
This public health issue is perpetrated by a false dichotomy of gun rights and gun control. Gun violence prevention research is not synonymous with gun control.
Research analyzes data within social contexts, and can help to inform common discussions such as whether the practice of storing guns safely affects the rates of homicide, how gun ownership affects the rate of self-defense, assess the impact of various gun violence prevention programs or examine mental health initiatives as they relate to incidents of gun violence.
President Obama’s gun violence prevention research committee at the Institute of Medicine and The Research Council has concluded that “significant progress” could be made in reducing gun violence in as few as three to five years of research.
Research, while its results may surprise or challenge a personal belief, is not conducted or presented to influence political aims but to objectively inform methods of mitigating a public health concern. While research on gun violence prevention continues to be stifled, mass shootings and gun suicides regularly occur.
A recent conversation with researcher Erin Grinshteyn said that many people’s comments regarding her latest study misconstrued the facts presented, and made any attempts at protecting people seem like an attempt to take people’s guns away.
“And that is not the policy recommendation the public health officials are recommending…this is an area that needs to be funded and it’s difficult to do without funding,” Grinshteyn said.
As seen with cigarettes and cars, making something safer or informing the public about its associated risks does not restrict access to it.
Refusing to acknowledge the current dearth of gun violence prevention research and its status as a serious public health concern denies Americans not only their rights to information, but also to solutions. The federal government has a responsibility to examine a phenomenon that kills approximately 30,000 Americans each year.
Politicians on the local and state level, and most importantly in Congress, have the power to allocate funds toward research in this area. Political peacocking must be abandoned in recognition of America’s most severe public health problem.
Devon Ziminski, Master in Social Policy candidate, attended The College of New Jersey. Her policy areas of interest include education, gun violence, and consumer behavior/business practices. Devon has been published in the Journal of Service Learning and Community-Based Research and most recently presented her research on distracted driving at the 2015 Marketing and Public Policy Conference.
This story has been published in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, the school launched “SP2 Penn Top 10, a comprehensive multimedia initiative in which renowned SP2 faculty members analyze and address the most pressing social justice and policy issues.”
Part of the project is the creation of stories produced by “SP2 Penn Top 10 Fellows,” graduate students from the School who are trained in solution-based journalism using the Journalism for Social Change curriculum.