With 22 school shootings so far this year, including the one on Monday in North Carolina, and more virtually guaranteed, many Americans are echoing the Parkland students’ call for action. Some want more background checks, while others demand an assault rifle ban. Still others are calling for additional armed guards and metal detectors in schools. Everyone wants to reduce the violence—but the truth is that we don’t know what works because the federal government refuses to fund and analyze new data on gun violence.
Earlier this year, researchers at RAND summarized how little we know about gun violence. Their study looked at 13 potential policies, such as gun-free zones or concealed carry and their effects on outcomes, including mass shootings and suicide. The researchers found “little persuasive evidence for the effects of most policies on most outcomes.” The strongest finding was that laws preventing child access to firearms decreased suicides and unintentional deaths; other policies were associated with only a few moderate effects. While other policies may work, we don’t yet have enough data to say whether they do. How could we know so little?
Our nation is willfully ignorant about what works to prevent gun violence: Our federal government does not collect even the most basic statistics on how and when it occurs. For 20 years, Congress has effectively banned agencies from addressing guns through the Dickey Amendment, a rider on the 1996 appropriations bill signed by then-President Bill Clinton. Although the amendment only banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using federal funds to “advocate or promote gun control,” it—along with the commensurate reduction in funding—was interpreted by the agencies to mean a complete ban on researching the public health implications of guns.
The 1996 bill largely starved social scientists of the opportunity to generate new data and research about gun violence. For most of the last 20 years, the CDC has done few studies: search “guns” on the CDC site, and “nail gun” injuries are the most relevant result. A 2013 review by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that the National Institute of Justice funded 32 gun-related studies from 1993 to 1999, but none from 2009 to 2013. The review also found that the share of peer-reviewed research on gun violence dropped by nearly two-thirds from 1996 to 2010.
Data and research, supported by federal funding, have been the keys to solving other public health problems. Take, for example, motor vehicle safety, which the CDC has proclaimed a “20th century public health achievement.” Despite a 10-fold increase in the number of motor vehicles since the 1920s, the rates of death from cars plummeted by 90 percent—largely attributable to actions begun in the 1960s, when the government established the National Highway Safety Bureau. As a result, our country started making cars with new safety features such as head rests, shatter-resistant windshields, and safety belts. And roads were improved through the additions of guardrails, reflectors, and break-away utility poles. The subsequent declines in deaths were rapid.
We’ve done such a good job at reducing motor vehicle deaths that, since 2009, more teenage boys ages 15 to 19 have died from guns than from cars. In fact, while nearly every other cause of death has diminished in the past 10 years, deaths from guns persisted—and are on the rise. This makes gun deaths an increasing percentage of all deaths. Thirty percent of boys ages 15 to 19 who died in 2016 died from a gun. For boys who are black, the majority of deaths (54 percent) were from a firearm injury. And for girls the same age, more than 1 in 10 deaths (11 percent) were from a gun. Of all causes of death for children age 1 to 19—including the flu, car accidents, and cancer—guns now account for 15 percent of deaths. For teens, guns claim 1 in 4 (25 percent).
Many major health organizations—including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association—have called for the gun epidemic to be treated as a public health crisis, just like motor vehicle deaths. But we cannot even begin to approach the problem without good data and adequate research funding, which the federal government can certainly provide.
Congress has had ample opportunity to revisit the Dickey ban or clarify its language. Despite many calls for the rider’s removal—including in 2012 by the rider’s author, former Arkansas congressman Jay Dickey—the language has been included in all subsequent appropriations bills. Far from opposing the language, Congress has taken steps to expand it. Beginning in 2003, the Tiahrt Amendment to the appropriations bill blocked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives from sharing previously available information from its national database of guns used in crime. In 2011, Congress copied that language to apply it to the entirety of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Earlier this year, just after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Congress again chose not to remove the rider. Instead, in a seemingly contradictory message included in the report which accompanied the appropriations, Congress noted that the CDC could conduct research into the causes of gun violence. Congress also provided funding to expand the National Violent Death Reporting System—a dataset that could begin to answer what works—to all states and the District of Columbia but did not allocate funding for any research itself.
While these actions represent steps forward, answers will be slow to come—and we need action now. We need game-changing grants for state or local governments to try new approaches and measure the results. We need to name the problem and bring science to bear in the laboratories of the states to solve it.
Currently, public funding for research on gun violence is estimated at less than $2 million per year, or—as the mayors noted in their report—about one-tenth of the budget for studying headaches ($21 million). According to former Rep. Dickey, “It is critical that the appropriation contain enough money to let science thrive and help us determine what works.” Too many of our children, under our protection, are dying from guns. Doing nothing is not an option.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2018 edition of Education Week as Our Willful Ignorance About Gun Violence