100 Sign Petition Calling for Gun Violence Research

Testimony. Vice President Biden (far right) and members of the Gun Violence Commission hear from the mother of a shooting victim.

Official White House Photo by David Lienemann

More than 100 researchers sent a letter yesterday to Vice President Joseph Biden asking the government to boost research on gun violence. Biden heads up the White House's Gun Violence Commission, which is looking into ways to reshape national policies in the wake of last month's mass shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut.

The researchers' petition, sent under the letterhead of the University of Chicago social science center known as the Crime Lab, says that "politically motivated constraints" have held back U.S. research on gun-related violence since the mid-1990s. That's when groups backing private gun ownership, including the National Rifle Association, leaned on Congress to limit such research. The lobbying push came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlighted firearms-linked deaths as a preventable public health problem.

In 1996, Congress cut CDC's budget by the exact amount the agency was spending on such research and adopted language stating that no funds "may be used to advocate or promote gun control." Other agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, were later waived off funding gun-related studies, according the letter. It argues that this loss of data collection and analysis pushed the government to a "muddling through" approach that hasn't worked well.

"We recognize that a lot of the gun‑policy debate in Washington, D.C. will hinge on how different people value the tradeoffs associated with different policy approaches," said Jens Ludwig, director of the Crime Lab and a co-author of the letter, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. "Right now the research community is hampered in its ability to inform policymakers about the expected benefits and costs of different policy approaches because of politically‑motivated limits on data access, and substantial federal under‑funding of research on gun violence."

In the letter to Biden, researchers say that violence involves guns more often in the United States than in Western democracies with similar rates of violence, leading to a higher U.S. homicide rate. The letter claims that the total cost of gun violence to U.S. society is about $100 billion a year. Yet the "paltry" funding of research on this problem, according to the letter, is "far below the levels warranted."

The researchers make two major recommendations:

  • "[R]emoval of the current barriers to firearm-related research, policy formation, evaluation and enforcement efforts."
  • Direct investments by the federal government "in unbiased scientific research and data infrastructure."

The Biden commission has been meeting with groups interested in gun control policies, including advocates of looser restrictions. Today, the panel met with makers of video games, which some argue may encourage violent behavior. Biden predicted that the panel will deliver its recommendations next week, and that the president will act quickly, possibly using executive authority.