The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 26, 2018

After clearing the CDC to study gun violence, Congress should take three additional steps

Hundreds of thousands of people demanded action against gun violence at protests around the world last weekend. Yet before the March for Our Lives began, Congress took a small step toward broadening our grasp of this issue.

Last week, lawmakers added language to the omnibus spending bill clarifying that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can fund gun violence research. This clarification of the so-called Dickey Amendment is an important first step toward funding gun violence research at levels commensurate to the harm wrought on citizens, their neighborhoods, and broader communities.

This decision paves the way for three further moves to expand what we know about gun violence—and save lives.

Fund gun violence research

Gun violence research and the funding programs that support it didn’t vanish with the 1996 passage of the Dickey Amendment. The CDC itself has funded program-oriented research and some innovative data collection programs. The National Institute of Justice has marched on as well, funding more than $2.8 million of gun violence research in 2017 alone.

Yet this level of funding is inadequate given gun violence’s sprawling, destructive effects. Gun violence annually kills 32,000 people injures 67,000 more, costs more than $600 million in hospital and emergency room care, and reduces local economic opportunities.

A collection of government agencies (though not the US Department of Justice) awarded $22 million for gun violence research from 2004 to 2015, a miniscule sum compared with the billions of dollars awarded to study diseases with similar mortality rates, such as sepsis and liver disease.

Improve federal data collection on gun violence

Even granted a massive expansion in federal funding for gun violence research, the current state of federal data collection on gun violence limits insights researchers might generate. The US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey is comprehensive enough to allow us to estimate the number of workers in a neighborhood who spend between five and nine minutes commuting to work, yet we don’t know how many people in a city are victims of shootings.

We similarly lack consistent data collection on the behaviors and practices of gun owners, as well as data on the movements of gun markets—just two of many areas where the federal government could improve data collection to support researchers’ work.    

Fund antiviolence programs and research together

Despite measly federal funding and lackluster data collection, we’re not completely ignorant about gun violence. We understand that gun violence is hyperconcentrated among certain places and people, that safe storage policies can protect children in homes with guns, and that some programs can significantly reduce community gun violence.

Ensuring that community-based and governmental programs to reduce gun violence are well resourced can complement increased research funding. Researchers and practitioners working in collaboration can deliver more knowledge and make real progress toward ending gun violence.

Without further investment in gun violence prevention and intervention efforts, advancing research becomes an abstract goal. But for millions of Americans, gun violence is anything but abstract.

The subheadings in this post were edited for clarity. Updated 03/27/2018.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., ranking member, and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., talk before at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Hart Building on 'Oversight of the Parkland Shooting and Legislative Proposals to Improve School Safety' on March 14, 2018. Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images.

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