We Don’t Know if Guns Kill People

In 2013, the Center For Disease Control (CDC) reported:

  • Motor Vehicles accounted for 33,804 American deaths
  • Firearms accounted for 33,636 American deaths

That year, the CDC had an operation budget of $11.2  billion and included  “$137.8 million for injury prevention and control programs that will support efforts to reduce premature deaths, disability, and medical costs associated with injuries and violence.”  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) spent over $600 million to “help States identify their highway safety problems using data, evaluate safety programs and activities, provide technical assistance to State program managers and training on a variety of programmatic subjects.”  The NHTSA has a division dedicated to “implement research programs to continually further the Agency’s goals in reduction of crashes, fatalities, and injuries”.  Based on 2013 research, the NHTSA reported: about 1,630 lives were saved by motorcycle helmets; crashes were not among the top 10 causes of death; the percentage of drivers text-messaging or visibly manipulating handheld devices increased from 1.7 percent in 2013 to 2.2 percent…  And On, and on.

In 2013, the CDC, the only US agency to research gun violence, spent $0 dollars on research into gun violence.  Total injury and death rates were cobbled together by the FBI, local PD, and secondary review sources.  We don’t know if they’re accurate.

File:Blank stare.jpg
¿Are blank stares more deadly than a .22? We dunno

The Dickey Amendment

This dearth of research funding for firearm research is thanks to former Representative Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas) who successfully added language to the 1996 congressional budget quashing all governmental research into firearms.  The Dickey rider states:

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.

To drive the point home, Congress then reduced the CDC budget by $2.6 million, or the exact amount invested in firearm research the year before.  Scientists took the hint.

For the next 20 years, it was known that putting your name on firearm research was a career blackhole.  Other research agencies were also affected: the National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism budgets were trapped with similar research stipulations suit against firearms research.  Between ’93 and ’99, the US Department of Justice (The National Institute of Justice) conducted 32 fire-arm related studies; they’ve completed none since.  

Research publications on US firearms use and their impact dropped 60% between ’96 and 2010.  In effect, Dickey largely eliminated governmental research into US firearm use.

Courtesy – Creative Commons, David Ohmer

But According to Studies…

In 2014, after the Newtown tragedy— this funding freeze continued.  While President Obama requested $20 million to expand the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System and $10 million for new research, Congress has been largely antagonistic to these efforts.  Some within the CDC are calling for change, but the agency and thus those researchers who rely on it for guidance and funding, still refuse find a way over this third rail of Constitutional politics.

In effect, the public and legislators are reduced to either emotional arguments or biased funding sources.  There is no question this topic is contentious, but without careful research and proper analysis, it’s turned from an empirical question into opinionated chest-beating. Even Jay Dickey, original sponsor of the ’96 rider, wrote in a 2012 Washington Post op-ed piece:

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.

Billions have been spent to research vehicle safety and use, and yet car owner rights are just as solid and legitimate as ever before.  It’s time for Congress to embrace a scientific minded approach to public safety and allow research into firearm’s use in the US.


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