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Obama Lifts Ban on Funding Gun Violence Research

President Barack Obama today lifted a 17-year drought in U.S. funding for research on gun violence, instructing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to step up its support for such work. But his request for Congress to approve $10 million for research on several aspects of violence prevention—including a look at the effects of video games and media images—could face stiff resistance among advocates of gun ownership.

Lifting the ban is one of 23 new actions, including a series of legislative proposals, to curb gun violence that the White House announced today in the wake of last month's shooting of children and teachers at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Among other goals, the president said he aims to require a "universal background check" for everyone buying a gun (about 40% of gun sales are not covered now), a prohibition on the sale of "military-style assault weapons," a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets, and a push for better mental health care.

Even as this initiative was being unveiled, the National Rifle Association had begun lobbying against it. NRA released a video ad criticizing the president as an "elitist" and "hypocrite" for trying to limit access to guns while he protects his own children with armed Secret Service agents.

The American Public Health Association, in contrast, issued a statement praising the administration's support for violence research and increased mental health care, noting that "[t]here is an irrefutable link between access to guns and increased homicides."

The memorandum signed by Obama today gives Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, the authority to direct CDC to:

[C]onduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it.The Secretary shall begin by identifying the most pressing research questions with the greatest potential public health impact, and by assessing existing public health interventions being implemented across the nation to prevent gun violence.

In addition, the administration says it will ask Congress "to provide $10 million for the CDC to conduct further research, including investigating the relationship between video games, media images, and violence."

CDC's funding of research on gun violence peaked at about $2.6 million in 1996. The results included findings such as the observation that homicides are significantly more likely to occur in households where a gun is kept. The gun lobby pressured Congress to stop this line of inquiry, and in the mid-1990s legislators issued a series of advisory messages and some legal restrictions on agency actions.

Among other steps, legislators added a directive in the bill that funds CDC's injury prevention center that said "none of the funds … may be used to advocate or promote gun control." Congress also cut CDC's budget by the amount it was spending on gun violence research, without specifying where the cut should be made. Managers got the message and cut gun-related research.

The White House claims today that people misread that message: "[S]ome members of Congress have claimed this prohibition also bans the CDC from conducting any research on the causes of gun violence," says a White House briefing document. "However, research on gun violence is not advocacy," according to the White House, which says the law does not bar increased federal support.

Today's news is "a terrific development," says Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago research center known as the Crime Lab. Ludwig is a co-author of a letter signed by more than 100 academics that calls for an end to the ban on gun violence research. In an e-mail to ScienceInsider, he says, "Without support for data and research in this area, it is very difficult to know which policy changes are most likely to generate net improvements in public safety that can justify the costs involved."