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Gun violence research: History of the federal funding freeze

Newtown tragedy may lead to lifting of freeze in place since 1996.

By Christine Jamieson

The recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., has brought a new focus on gun violence prevention from the federal government and from the general public. For many, it is clear that any comprehensive plan to address gun violence in the United States must include further research into this problem. The longtime concern among the science community about the freeze on federal funds for gun violence research, which has now spanned nearly two decades, has seen a renewed wave of interest and advocacy. This article reviews the history of the freeze and of responses to it by the American Psychological Association (APA) and other organizations and individuals.

In 1993, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published an article by Arthur Kellerman and colleagues, “Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home,” which presented the results of research funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The study found that keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide. The article concluded that rather than confer protection, guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance. Kellerman was affiliated at the time with the department of internal medicine at the University of Tennessee. He went on to positions at Emory University, and he currently holds the Paul O’Neill Alcoa Chair in Policy Analysis at the RAND Corporation.

The 1993 NEJM article received considerable media attention, and the National Rifle Association (NRA) responded by campaigning for the elimination of the center that had funded the study, the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention. The center itself survived, but Congress included language in the 1996 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill (PDF, 2.4MB) for Fiscal Year 1997 that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”  Referred to as the Dickey amendment after its author, former U.S. House Representative Jay Dickey (R-AR), this language did not explicitly ban research on gun violence. However, Congress also took $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget — the amount the CDC had invested in firearm injury research the previous year — and earmarked the funds for prevention of traumatic brain injury. Dr. Kellerman stated in a December 2012 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency's funding to find out. Extramural support for firearm injury prevention research quickly dried up.”

At the time APA advocated in support of firearm-related injury research, and APA released the following statement when the Dickey amendment was adopted: 

Research on the prevention of firearm-related injury, supported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and coordinated within CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), has come under attack from Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) and the National Rifle Association (NRA). The House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee initially rejected Rep. Dickey's attempt to eliminate the $2.6 million dedicated to CDC firearm-injury research. However, Mr. Dickey prevailed in the full Appropriations Committee. The Dickey amendment would transfer the $2.6 million to regional health education centers. This research has attracted a powerful and wealthy opponent — the NRA. The NRA has taken the position that firearm-related injury research at the CDC amounts to 'antigun' political advocacy and has also attacked the quality of this research. However, research proposals submitted to CDC are subject to a peer review process that follows standard practices. APA's Public Policy Office (PPO) has distributed accurate information to Congress on the nature of CDC-supported firearm-injury research and is advocating against the Dickey amendment.

A report released in January 2013 by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns (PDF, 2MB), founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, found that since 1996 the CDC’s funding for firearm injury prevention has fallen 96 percent and is now just $100,000 of the agency’s $5.6 billion budget. The CDC’s online guide for grants funded by the agency’s Injury Control Research Centers currently includes a section titled Prohibition of Use of CDC Funds for Certain Gun Control Activities, which states that “In addition to the restrictions in the Anti-Lobbying Act, CDC interprets the language in the CDC's Appropriations Act to mean that CDC's funds may not be spent on political action or other activities designed to affect the passage of specific Federal, State, or local legislation intended to restrict or control the purchase or use of firearms.” 

Following the January 2011 shootings in Tucson, Ariz., (in which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was injured), the New York Times published an article reporting that the CDC went so far as to “ask researchers it finances to give it a heads-up anytime they are publishing studies that have anything to do with firearms. The agency, in turn, relays this information to the NRA as a courtesy.” In response to this report, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence sent a letter (PDF, 647) in March 2011 to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius expressing concern that the agency was giving the NRA a “preferred position,” and urging that the NRA not be given the opportunity to exercise special influence over CDC’s firearms-related research.

In December 2011, Congress added language equivalent to the Dickey amendment to fiscal year 2012 appropriations legislation that funded the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 (PDF, 1.3MB), stating that “none of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.” The NRA’s advocacy efforts that lead to this amendment are thought to be a response to a 2009 American Journal of Public Health article by Branas et al., titled “Investigating the link between gun possession and gun assault,” presenting the results of research that was funded by the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Mark Rosenberg, former director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, has been vocal about what essentially has amounted to a ban on federal funding for gun violence research, claiming that “The scientific community has been terrorized by the NRA.” In July 2012, former Representative Dickey co-authored a Washington Post op-ed with Rosenberg, announcing that his views had reversed since he introduced the Dickey amendment in 1996. Wrote Dickey and Rosenberg, “We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago, but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners. The same evidence-based approach that is saving millions of lives from motor-vehicle crashes, as well as from smoking, cancer and HIV/AIDS, can help reduce the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence.” 

On Jan. 9 of this year, in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., APA CEO Norman Anderson participated in one of several White House meetings convened by a presidential task force on gun violence led by Vice President Joseph Biden. At that time APA also provided administration officials with a set of recommendations to prevent gun-related violence and support mental health. The fifth recommendation, “Enhance Knowledge Base for Sound Public Policy on Violence Prevention” included three specific recommended actions:

  • Facilitate research into the mental health and behavioral indicators of individuals who engaged in school violence incidents. These efforts will inform current best practices and serve as the foundation for guidance to mental health care providers when treating clients who exhibit such indicators. 

  • Establish a science advisory blue ribbon panel — perhaps under the auspices of the OSTP’s Principal Advisor for SBE Sciences — to advise the administration and help ensure existing scientific evidence is used to inform policy.  [OSTP: Office of Science and Technology Policy; SBE Sciences: Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences] 

  • As a longer term response, fund a National Academies of Science (NAS) study to develop a 21st century research agenda, relevant to various federal agencies (e.g., NIH, FBI, CDC, NSF and DoJ) to inform gun violence prevention and intervention efforts. An updating of the NAS 2004 report, “Firearms and Violence,” to fill gaps in knowledge would be very helpful in this regard.

The same week, on Jan. 10, the University of Chicago Crime Lab sent a letter (PDF, 1.34KB) to Vice President Biden, signed by over 100 scientists, calling for the removal of the current barriers to firearm-related research, policy formation, evaluation and enforcement efforts and calling on the federal government to make direct investments in unbiased scientific research and data infrastructure. (Signatories that are psychologists include Mary Ann Dutton of Georgetown University, Benjamin Lahey of the University of Chicago, Susan Sorenson of the University of Pennsylvania, Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, Linda Teplin of Northwestern University and Katherine Wild of the Oregon Health Sciences University.)

On Jan. 16, President Barack Obama released his national plan for addressing gun violence. Highlighted on the first page the executive summary (PDF, 332KB) is the initiative to “end the freeze on gun violence research.” In a fact sheet (PDF, 350KB) supplementing the plan, the White House provided the following background and strategy details:

There are approximately 30,000 firearm-related homicides and suicides a year, a number large enough to make clear this is a public health crisis. But for years, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other scientific agencies have been barred by Congress from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control,” and some members of Congress have claimed this prohibition also bans the CDC from conducting any research on the causes of gun violence. However, research on gun violence is not advocacy; it is critical public health research that gives all Americans information they need.

Conduct research on the causes and prevention of gun violence, including links between video games, media images and violence: The president is issuing a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control and scientific agencies to conduct research into the causes and prevention of gun violence. It is based on legal analysis that concludes such research is not prohibited by any appropriations language. The CDC will start immediately by assessing existing strategies for preventing gun violence and identifying the most pressing research questions, with the greatest potential public health impact. And the Administration is calling on Congress to provide $10 million for the CDC to conduct further research, including investigating the relationship between video games, media images and violence.

Better understand how and when firearms are used in violent death: To research gun violence prevention, we also need better data. When firearms are used in homicides or suicides, the National Violent Death Reporting System collects anonymous data, including the type of firearm used, whether the firearm was stored loaded or locked, and details on youth gun access. Congress should invest an additional $20 million to expand this system from the 18 states currently participating to all 50 states, helping Americans better understand how and when firearms are used in a violent death and informing future research and prevention strategies.

APA released a statement the next day expressing strong support for key components of the president’s plan, including the following stance on federal gun violence research:

APA endorses the provision to end the freeze on federal gun violence research. This ban has significantly hampered psychological scientists’ ability to systematically assess the risk of assault and other weapons to the public, and to determine the effectiveness of various preventive measures. APA supports increased federal funding for research on the causes and prevention of gun violence, including attention to violence in media, to jump start this field after so many years of neglect. 

On Jan. 24, Vice President Biden hosted a publicly webcasted online fireside chat, engaging in a discussion with Google Plus users about the president’s plan. Regarding the NRA’s lobbying efforts and the freeze on federal gun violence research, Biden said, “It bothers me that part of the interest group population out there is afraid of facts.  Let the facts lead where they will, and let the research be done. That’s something that the president and I feel very strongly.”

APA’s Science Directorate will continue to monitor this issue closely going into the 2013 federal appropriations legislation season and to advocate in support of the president’s initiative to invest federal funds in this critical field of research.

Christine Jamieson is Science Policy Associate in the APA Science Directorate’s Government Relations Office.