Scientists develop agenda for gun violence research

Congress to decide whether CDC will have funds to support the research.

By Christine Jamieson

In June, a report on Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence was released by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council’s Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (DBASSE). The report, which lays out a research agenda for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was produced by a 14-member committee established by the IOM and DBASSE earlier this year in response to President Obama’s call for an end to the freeze on federal funding for gun violence research.

A presidential memorandum in January directed the CDC to conduct research into the causes and prevention of gun violence, and to start immediately by assessing existing strategies for preventing gun violence and identifying the most pressing research questions. The CDC asked the IOM and DBASSE to provide guidance on developing a research agenda. 

The report frames firearm-related violence as a public health issue:

The complexity and frequency of firearm violence, combined with its impact on the health and safety of Americans, suggest that a public health approach should be incorporated into the strategies used to prevent future harm and injuries. The public health approach involves three elements: a focus on prevention, a focus on scientific methodology to identify risk and patterns, and multidisciplinary collaboration to address the problem. This approach has seen success in reducing tobacco use, unintentional poisonings, and motor vehicle fatalities.

It also states:

The evidence generated by implementing a public health research agenda will enable the development of sound policies that support both the rights and the responsibilities central to gun ownership in the United States. In the absence of this research, policy makers will be left to debate controversial policies without scientifically sound evidence about their potential effects.

The report goes on to lay out research priorities and questions (PDF, 417KB) in five areas:  

  • Characteristics of gun violence 
  • Risk and protective factors
  • Firearm violence prevention and other interventions
  • Impact of gun safety technology
  • Video games and other media

The IOM/DBASSE committee included two psychologists: Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who served as chair of the committee, and Susan Sorenson, professor of social policy and practice and professor of health and societies at the University of Pennsylvania.  

Other psychologists made presentations at the committee’s public workshop held in April: Nadine Kaslow, professor at Emory University and president-elect of APA; Julia da Silva, director of the APA’s Violence Prevention Office; and Deborah Gorman-Smith, professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention. Slide presentations from the workshop are available on the meeting website.

Budget considerations

The president’s budget request for fiscal year 2014, released in April, includes $10 million for gun violence prevention research for the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and $20 million to expand coverage of the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) from 18 to 50 states.  

It remains to be seen whether Congress will approve this funding for the CDC. In May, APA submitted outside witness testimony (PDF, 309KB) to the Senate Committee on Appropriations regarding FY 2014 appropriations for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education (Labor-HHS-Education), in support of the president’s request. The testimony noted that the freeze on federal funding for gun violence research has significantly hampered psychological scientists’ ability to systematically assess risks and to determine the effectiveness of various prevention measures, and pointed to promising research directions identified by the IOM/DBASSE committee.  

In advance of the full committee markup of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill in July, APA along with other organizations sent a letter (PDF, 149KB) to the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Committee on Appropriations and the Subcommittee on Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations, in support of at least $10 million in new funding for CDC in FY 2014, along with sufficient new funding at the National Institutes of Health, to support research into the causes and prevention of gun violence. The letter urged members to oppose any efforts to reduce, eliminate or condition CDC funding related to gun violence prevention research, as one senator was set to offer an amendment to the bill to eliminate the funding or restrict its use. The amendment was withdrawn just before the markup, and the Senate Appropriations Committee passed an FY 2014 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill on July 22, with $10 million for gun violence prevention research and $18.5 million for expanding the NVDRS.

The FY 2014 appropriations process is still underway, and APA will continue to advocate for funding for gun violence prevention research.   

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