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What Researchers Learned About Gun Violence Before Congress Killed Funding

| February 26, 2013

Curtailing research's suicidal idiocy is the NRA's gain. (Thomas Leuthard)

Curtailing research’s suicidal idiocy is the NRA’s gain. (Thomas Leuthard)

President Obama has directed the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence as part of his legislative package on gun control. The CDC hasn’t pursued this kind of research since 1996 when the National Rifle Association lobbied Congress to cut funding for it, arguing that the studies were politicized and being used to promote gun control. We’ve interviewed Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who led the agency’s gun violence research in the nineties when he was the director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

We talked to Rosenberg about the work the agency was doing before funding was cut and how it’s relevant to today’s gun control debate. Here’s an edited transcript.

There’s been coverage recently about how Congress cut funding for gun violence research, but not much about what the agency was actually researching and what it was finding. You were in charge of that. Tell us a little bit about what the CDC was doing back then.

There were basically four questions that we were trying to answer. The first question is what is the problem? Who were the victims? Who was killed? Who were injured? Where did they happen? Under what circumstances? When? What times of the year? What times of the day? What was the relationship to other events? How did they happen? What were the weapons that were used? What was the relationship between the people involved? What was the motive or the setting in which they happened?

The second question is what are the causes? What are the things that increase one’s risk of being shot? What are the things that decrease one’s risk of being shot?

The third question we were trying to answer is what works to prevent these? What kinds of policies, what kinds of interventions, what kinds of police practices or medical practices or education and school practices actually might prevent some of these shootings? We’re not just looking at mass shootings, but also looking at the bulk of the homicides that occur every year and the suicides, which account for a majority of all gun deaths.

Then the last question is how do you do it? Once you have a program or policy that has been proven to work in one place, how do you spread it? How do you actually put it in place?

So what were you were able to find before funding got cut off?

One of the critical studies that we supported was looking at the question of whether having a firearm in your home protects you or puts you at increased risk. This was a very important question because people who want to sell more guns say that having a gun in your home is the way to protect your family.

What the research showed was not only did having a firearm in your home not protect you, but it hugely increased the risk that someone in your family would die from a firearm homicide. It increased the risk almost 300 percent, almost three times as high.

It also showed that the risk that someone in your home would commit suicide went up. It went up five-fold if you had a gun in the home. These are huge, huge risks, and to just put that in perspective, we look at a risk that someone might get a heart attack or that they might get a certain type of cancer, and if that risk might be 20 percent greater, that may be enough to ban a certain drug or a certain product.

But in this case, we’re talking about a risk not 20 percent, not 100 percent, not 200 percent, but almost 300 percent or 500 percent. These are huge, huge risks.

I understand there was also an effort to collect data on gun violence through something called the Firearm Injury Surveillance System. What did that involve?

We were collecting information to answer the question of who, what, where, when, and how did shootings occur?

We were finding that most homicides occur between people who know each other, people who are acquaintances or might be doing business together or might be living together. They’re not stranger-on-stranger shootings. They’re not mostly home intrusions.

We also found that there were a lot of firearm suicides, and in fact most firearm deaths are suicides. There were a lot of young people who were impulsive who were using guns to commit suicide.

So if you were able to continue this work, what kind of data do you think would be available today?

I think we’d know much more information about what sorts of weapons are used in what sorts of firearm deaths and injuries.

Let’s say you look at robbery associated homicides, and you find that in those homicides certain weapons are used in almost all of them and that these weapons come from a limited number of sources and that those weapons are not used by people to defend their home or to hunt or to target shoot. Then you can say, “Here’s a type of weapon that seems to be only used in criminal enterprises and doesn’t seem to have any legitimate uses, and maybe we ought to find a way to restrict the sales or access to that type of weapon.”

I think it’s also important to look at what the impact of these data might be.

If you look at how many deaths have occurred between 1996, when there was this disruption to surveillance and research, and now, so that’s 16 years, and if you assume that there are about 30,000 gun deaths every year, you’re talking about 480,000 gun deaths over that period of time.


If even a fraction of those deaths could have been prevented, you’re talking about a significant impact in terms of saving lives.

Lawmakers are now trying to figure out what the most effective policies might be to curb gun violence, and how to implement them. What were you beginning to find on that?

The largest question in this category is what kind of larger policies work? Does it work, for example, if you have an assault weapon ban? Does that reduce the number of firearm injuries and deaths? In truth, we don’t know the answer to that. That requires evaluation.

Does gun licensing and registration work to reduce firearm injuries and death? We don’t have the answer.

The policies that make it easier to carry concealed weapons, do those reduce or do those increase firearm injuries and deaths? We don’t have the answer. Do gun bans like they have in the city of Chicago, work? We don’t have the answer yet to those.

These require large-scale studies of large numbers of people, over a long period of time to see if they work or don’t.

I don’t think those studies were fully funded or completed.

How do you think the gun control debate might be different today, if you had been allowed to continue that research?

I would like to think that we would have had answers to what works and what doesn’t work. I would hope that we know whether the kind of bans and restrictions that they have in Chicago really make a difference or don’t. I would hope that we would have had information about whether an assault weapon ban saves lives or doesn’t. Unfortunately, when you don’t have those data that really show you, scientifically, whether or not something works, then you end up with people making statements like the following, “Obviously, the assault weapon ban didn’t work, because Columbine happened.”

That’s kind of like saying, “Vaccines don’t work because someone got the flu.”

The Obama administration is asking Congress for $10 million to pursue gun-related research. If you had that budget and you had your old job, what would you use the money to look at?

I think we’d want to look at what the impact of different policies would be, both restricting and enabling policies.

The other thing that I would make sure we looked at is not just how do we prevent firearm injuries, but how do we also protect the rights of legitimate gun owners? I think it would be very important to look, for example, at legislation that restricts access by certain people to firearms.

People often think that there are maybe three things we should consider passing right now, something like an assault weapons ban, a ban on large capacity magazines, and background checks on all gun purchasers.

The truth is that there’s not going to be a simple, magic pill or even three pills that cure the whole problem. If you look at suicides and the whole range of homicides and firearm injuries, the answers are going to come, bit by bit, over time, incrementally.

It’s not one, two or even three things that are really going to solve the problem. They may solve our conscience, but they won’t solve the problem. The research is really, really important. We really need to find out what works, so that we can save more lives.

It’s been presented to people that research is going to hurt legitimate gun owners. That’s the threat and how the NRA leadership has often presented it to the NRA membership. “Any sort of research is only going to result in your losing all your guns.”

That’s a tactic of fear. It’s not at all the case. There are things we can do that will both reduce firearm injuries and protect the legitimate rights of gun owners and protect the children and their families.

–Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica

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8 Responses for “What Researchers Learned About Gun Violence Before Congress Killed Funding”

  1. Magnolia says:

    What did they have to say about all the black children being killed in DC and Chicago, where guns are illegal? Why aren’t they concentrating on stopping that first? Then maybe the rest might not feel the need for protection.

  2. Edman says:

    The NRE and GOP treat citizens like mushroom farms; they like to keep us in the dark and feed us bulls..t.

  3. Edman says:

    The NRA and GOP treat citizens like mushroom farms; they like to keep us in the dark and feed us bulls..t.

  4. Pamela Zill says:

    The AMA has clearly stated during the late 90’S the greatest cause of death to children is guns at home period.

  5. Jill says:

    I keep telling you….because it takes money, education, pulling people up by their straps, empowering people, giving people jobs, giving them a piece of the American dream, eradicating drugs, social reform, taking pride and rebuilding the community, police and neighborhood communication. Putting bad people behind bars. I remember the 70’s when crime and murder was rampant. Nicky Barnes brought truckloads of cheese to give to the community. Yes, truck loads of cheese. People rioted for that. How sad. Nicky Barnes killed a lot of people through the sale of cocaine and he gives them cheese. The inner cities of Chicago are now killing people with guns. There is no direction, no money for social programs. The economy is sluggish but the drug trade flourishes and so do the guns. We have punks with guns roaming the neighborhoods of large inner cities because there is no work. People are disillusioned and our most cherished, young people caught in the middle are dieing every day somewhere in this country.
    Remember the Theory, Social Disorganization, (Chi) in certain neighborhoods people are not sure who is in charge. People are idle and unemployed. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”. We are still in a depressed economy. The thing that will help Chicago is money and plenty of it but there is no money. If you take from Peter and give to Paul it’s a juggling act. The President and Republicans are at it again while the American people stand by the side, some waiting for jobs, a better education or a better lot in society. I have never seen such a useless bunch of Congressmen in my life. This country is hurting and this so called elected officials we elected are henpecked and seem tuned out at what’s going on in this country.

  6. Sliced says:

    Once we get rid of those EVIL guns that help suicidal humans take their lives, we can get started on removing the other suicidal weapons… ROPES…..KNIVES…..CARBON MONOXIDE…. BRIDGES…. POLICE… We could just take EVERYTHING away from mental people and put them all in a RUBBER ROOM…..But wait, they may use the fumes from the rubber room to commit suicide !!!

  7. Magnolia says:

    I think we know what’s causing it. The Hollywood/media culture has glorified violence everywhere we look. Why, your kids can practice shooting other kids on video games, did you know that? Has anybody seen the headline that Bloomberg has exempted Hollywood and the entertainment industry from the NYC gun laws because THEY BRING MONEY INTO NYC? Yep, he said that.

    How about we DEFUND some of that and spend some money on mental health issues? When was the last time that happened? Maybe if the entertainment industry was forced to contribute the funding of mental health issues, they might make better movies, games for our children? I’m open for ideas…

    I think that might be something we can all agree on! At least it’s a start.

  8. JOHN ELL says:

    When a nation is in a state of decay as our country is right now, those responsible or in a position to try to improve things usually look for someone else to blame. This is exactly what we see in the above article. The Centers for Disease Control looked at other reasons except the right one.

    We are a country out of control. A nation of freedom and liberty is wonderful and great fun but without responsibility is a disaster. The mentality of anything goes and is OK, without consequences, leads to the moral and ethical decay we now witness. There is no leadership at any level so that the social destruction will intensify while the Leader of the Country who is a wanna-be entertainer tries to take away our guns and violate our Constitutional Amendment Rights. What a pathetic response.

    We have had guns for years and years and years without the disregard for life that exists now. Why is that? We don’t get rid of cars because of the many deaths, and we don’t even make a national issue of determining where the problem lies. I guess that perhaps it is because it is not a political issue.

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