After years of mass shootings, the US is still trying to understand gun violence. Why?
Nearly two decades ago Congress imposed restrictions on gun violence research, and the effects are still reverberating
After every mass shooting the same questions seem to arise: how did the shooter get their gun? What were the warning signs? What’s the relationship between domestic violence and white supremacist ideology and mass killings? How can we stop this from happening again?
What few people ask, however, is why, after decades of high-profile mass shootings and nearly 50,000 gun-related deaths each year, we’re still trying to understand the causes of gun violence. Were it not for a nearly two-decade stoppage in federally funded gun violence research, we may have been closer to having these answers, says Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician and longtime gun violence researcher.
“Instead, we choked off funding and now we’re answering questions that we could have had 30 years ago,” said Wintermute, who heads the violence prevention research program at UC Davis. “How many more thousands of people are dead today that would have been alive if the research of the 90s had continued, if we had answered those questions?”
Here’s a look back at how – and why – the US stopped studying gun violence, and where that led us.
Why research into gun violence stopped
In the late 1980s and early 90s, gun violence researchers focused on spiking community and interpersonal gun violence. Though gun homicides had started to decline in 1993, there was growing consensus that gun violence was a public health concern that needed to be addressed beyond the criminal justice system. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) led and funded much of this work through their center for violence prevention.
In 1993, a CDC-funded study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that instead of offering protection, having a gun at home increases the risk that someone in the household will be killed. This study and similar ones drew the ire of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their allies in the US Congress, who saw the CDC’s work as a wing of the gun control movement.
In 1996, three years before the mass shooting at Columbine high school, at the behest of the NRA, Jay Dickey, a Republican representative from Arkansas and his congressional allies added a provision to that year’s spending bill that barred funds from being used to promote gun control. “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,” it said. That provision became known as the Dickey amendment. Congress also took the $2.6m that had been allocated to the CDC for gun violence research and repurposed it for research on traumatic brain injuries.
While the provision did not ban government-funded gun violence research outright, it had an intense cooling effect.
Over the next two decades, congressional spending on research into gun violence plummeted by 96% and the number of publications about gun violence declined by 64%, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
A handful of researchers continued to publish studies, but many left the field. Small amounts of public money were made available to researchers through the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the US Department of Justice, but it wasn’t enough to keep the field growing and attract new academics and clinicians.
“People lost their funding and left the field because you need to make a living,” Wintermute said.
What has the effect been?
In the absence of federally funded public health research on the topic, most studies of gun violence in recent decades were created by criminologists and centered on policing practices. This contributed to the still strongly held belief that gun violence was solely a crime problem that should be addressed by law enforcement, said Jonathan Jay, an assistant professor at Boston University School of Public Health. This trickled down into the way the public understood gun violence.
“The fact that the public might see something like hot spots policing as a go-to strategy says something about where the research and conversation had been,” he added. “If more was coming from the public health side we’d be farther along about discussing cycles of trauma and the way that systems harm people.”
The scarcity of gun violence research by public health researchers from the late 90s to early 2010s has also limited lawmakers’ understanding of indicators of what effective policy solutions for community and domestic violence and mass shootings might be. For example, the violence reduction practice of “greening” vacant lots and beautifying local parks is still a burgeoning area of study, despite decades of low-income Black and Latino communities pointing to this strategy.
Without research on interventions that don’t involve law enforcement, officials can more easily dismiss the residents most affected by violence when they call for improving neighborhood conditions and boosting funding for young people, Jay said. “If you’re only seeing it as a police and law enforcement interest, anything the community is asking for is gonna be seen as off-base.”
“As researchers we can validate what community members have said for a long time which is: community space matters, social structure matters,” he said.
When it comes to high-profile mass shootings that are motivated by white supremacist, xenophobic and misogynist beliefs, Wintermute suggests that there is still little known about how to identify potential shooters and intervene with those who air the grievances online.
So where do things stand now?
Before Dickey’s death in 2017, he reversed course on the merits of gun violence research. He came out in support of California’s firearm violence research act, and in a 2015 interview with NPR, Dickey said that he had regrets about his previous stance and implored Congress to reinstate funding.
“I’ve gone back through it in my mind to say, ‘What could we have done?’” he said. “And I know what we could’ve done. We could’ve kept the fund alive and just restricted the expenditure of dollars.”
Since then, as gun violence soared, becoming the top killer of children in the US, investments in gun violence research by the government and philanthropic groups have boomed, leading to more studies on topics such as violence in rural communities and red flag laws.
In 2018, Congress negotiated a $1.3tn spending bill that included a report clarifying that the CDC can research gun violence as long as it doesn’t advocate for gun restrictions. This cleared the way for early-career researchers to get into the field. Wintermute has seen this first-hand: his program at UC Davis has grown from four staff members in 2014 to 25 now.
But this “explosion” in research, as Wintermute called it, is coming too late. “It could have happened 30 years ago,” he said.