We think of the Centers for Disease Control as collecting data on just about everything. But scientists say a lack of funding and political pressure had long prevented them from researching gun violence. And not just the possible causes of violence -- but data collection around specific acts of violence.
On Wednesday, the president addressed the need to look for those causes in his proposals to curb gun violence. In a section [PDF] titled "End the Freeze on Gun Violence Research," the president directs the CDC to research gun violence and also wants Congress to pony up $20 million to expand the national database on violent deaths.
"We don't benefit from ignorance," Obama said. "We don't benefit from not knowing the science from this epidemic of violence."
From the president's plan:
... for years, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other scientific agencies have been barred by Congress from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control,” and some members of Congress have claimed this prohibition also bans the CDC from conducting any research on the causes of gun violence. However, research on gun violence is not advocacy; it is critical public health research that gives all Americans information they need.
Larry Cohen, executive director of Oakland's Prevention Institute, called the backing of research "perhaps the most important part" of the President's proposals.
"People have been working for years to prevent violence, but it’s like we’re working with blinders on, because there are certain very obvious places we’re unable to look," Cohen said. "Clearly there’s no way to look at the epidemic and not realize that guns are a clear element of homicide, and yet we're told, 'don’t look at guns.'"
NBC News quoted scientists who were equally enthusiastic about the president's plans. From NBC:
(Scientists say) pro-gun advocates -- including the National Rifle Association -- had choked off funding for CDC firearms research starting in the mid-1990s and imposed a chilling effect on those who dared to pursue it.
"He's saying this is very important and I'm going to back you on this," said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, president of the Task Force for Global Health and director of the CDC's Center for Injury Prevention and Control from 1994 to 1999. "Basically, they've been terrorized by the NRA."
If you're wondering how we got here, Slate published a great explainer:
In the 1990s, politicians backed by the NRA attacked researchers for publishing data on firearm research. For good measure, they also went after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for funding the research. According to the NRA, such science is not “legitimate.” To make sure federal agencies got the message, Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) sponsored an amendment that stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, the exact amount it had spent on firearms research the previous year.
To be fair, Dickey later recanted and published an opinion piece in the Washington Post, titled "We won't know the cause of gun violence until we look for it."
Now researchers will get a better opportunity to look.