Doctors Call for End to 20-Year Ban on Gun Violence Research

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Harrison Alter is an emergency room doctor at Highland Hospital in Oakland. He sees about one to two gun injuries every shift he works.

“These are young people,” he says. “And there’s an enormous amount of human potential that’s lost to a lifetime of colostomy bags and pressure sores and wheelchair ramps. And there’s real fear in their eyes.”

Alter says there’s a serious lack of research that could help prevent gun injuries. In 1996, gun lobbyists accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of promoting gun control, and Congress threatened to cut the agency’s funding. A rider attached to an appropriations bill banned the use of federal money on studies that promote gun control.

But the effect was more broad: Out of fear of losing its funding, the CDC stopped conducting or supporting studies into the public health effects of gun violence.

“So that sort of wiped out a generation of firearm injury researchers,” Alter says. “To have starved our society of research in this matter for 20 years is really difficult to justify.”

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Today he says there are fewer than 20 medical researchers dedicated to studying gun violence. One of them is Garen Wintemute, an ER doctor at UC Davis Medical Center.

“Let me draw a contrast between firearms and motor vehicles,” he says.

In the 1960s, death rates from car accidents were going up every year. It was a true epidemic on the highway, Wintemute says.

“So we mobilized. We recognized the problem, we put smart people in charge, and we gave them money to do research,” he said. “Policymakers asked for recommendations, and turned them into new policy and regulation.”

Advocates pushed car manufacturers to install airbags; cars were re-engineered to make them safer. Since then, Wintemute says motor vehicle death rates plummeted 60 percent, even though Americans are driving more.

“With firearm violence, we've done exactly the opposite,” he says. “We have repeatedly, consciously, deliberately turned our back on the problem.”

Wintemute thinks the reason is race politics. Gun violence is seen as a problem that mainly affects young African-American men killed on city streets.

“They’re people not like policymakers,” he says. “There’s a difference in age and ethnicity. And so it’s easy not to take action.”

In fact, gun suicides far outnumber gun homicides. More middle-aged white men die from self-inflicted gunshot wounds than men of color who die in gun homicides. Wintemute points this out when he meets with lawmakers.

“These people look just like you, Senator,” he says he tells them.

Wintemute says more research is needed to understand what the risk factors and patterns of gun violence are and what kinds of interventions work.

Recently, 2,000 doctors signed a petition asking Congress to remove barriers to doing research like this. Some Democrats are trying. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said she would push to end the ban in the year-end funding bill.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, hosted a forum for the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force last week.

“I’m a gun guy. I’m a hunter. I support the Second Amendment,” he says. “I believe law-abiding people have a right to own and use firearms.”

But he says those rights can be protected at the same time experts conduct research.

“I don’t believe the debate that we’re having, the issue of gun safety or gun violence prevention, is in conflict with the Second Amendment,” he says. “It’s not an either-or.”

But Republicans and the National Rifle Association have resisted.

“If efforts were made to do a stringent, unbiased, all-inclusive evaluation on which laws actually work when it comes to reducing gun violence, that would be a different story,” says Amy Hunter, NRA spokeswoman.

She says past CDC studies were “biased” and questioned whether the agency could be trusted to do unbiased research now.

“We're just not going to support efforts that do nothing but attempt to convince Americans that lawfully owned firearms are a public health menace,” she says.

Back in Oakland, where hundreds of people have been killed or assaulted with a gun this year, Dr. Harrison Alter says research would play an important role for the community.

“I think one thing research can do is restore hope,” he says.

Take cancer research that has led to more effective treatments. Or the car accident research that has led to safer child seats and cars. Alter believes they can do the same with guns.

“So a situation that seemed hopeless, to thousands of families every year, now, there’s hope,” he says. “And that’s research.”