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Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D–NJ) is among the members of Congress who have asked the National Institutes of Health why it ended a research funding program focused on gun violence.

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NIH institute directors stand firm on not renewing focused firearm research program

The directors of two institutes that fund firearm research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, say they have no plans to renew a lapsed gun violence research initiative launched under former President Barack Obama in response to the 2012 killings of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The NIH officials’ comments, made yesterday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., came on the same day that two members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged NIH to renew the initiative.

“We probably will issue [a new] funding opportunity announcement, but it will be on violence in general. I don’t think we have to specify gun violence,” George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said at a press conference. He argued that alcohol abuse is associated with many forms of violence, and added that in his opinion, “much more important is the interaction of violence and sexual aggression with alcohol.”

Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, noted that the institutes already fund projects on brain-based and other causes of violence. He added: “Whether we need additional specific studies on gun violence … that’s a question that we will look into but we have not identified that currently as a gap” in agency research.

Gun violence researchers disagreed. “If [gun research] wasn’t identified as a gap, I’m not sure where they are looking,” said Douglas Wiebe, an epidemiologist who studies firearm violence at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

Garen Wintemute, an emergency medicine physician who directs the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, agreed with the NIH institute chiefs that alcohol abuse and other factors implicated in firearm violence have broader associations. “That said, the lack of support for research on firearm violence, as compared with the magnitude of the problem, is unique. A continued focused effort would be very useful,” Wintemute wrote in an email. (Under Obama’s gun research initiative, Wintemute received a large grant to study the relationship between prior alcohol-related arrests and the risk of committing a firearms-related criminal offense among 116,000 legal gun buyers in California.)

NIH’s funding initiative, titled “Research on the Health Determinants and Consequences of Violence and its Prevention, Particularly Firearm Violence,” was open for applications between January 2014 and January 2017. It had funneled $18 million to 23 research projects as of September; 14 of them, accounting for $11.4 million of the $18 million, contain the words "firearm," "firearms gun," "guns," "handgun," "shootings," or "weapons" in their title or abstract. 

NIH officials have noted that firearms researchers can continue to apply for NIH funding to study gun violence through a general application channel used by thousands of NIH applicants. They recently pointed to two gun research grants awarded this way, worth a combined total of $1.4 million in their first fiscal year. Both have been funded since June. But gun violence researchers say that specifically targeted funding is crucial for supporting the field and attracting new researchers.

Two House Democrats wrote to NIH Director Francis Collins yesterday, asking whether the decision to let the program lapse in January is permanent, and, if not, when he plans to renew it. They asked for a response by 28 November. “Individuals, families and communities affected by gun violence cannot afford for NIH to leave funding for this critical research to chance,” wrote Representatives Frank Pallone Jr. (D–NJ), the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Bobby Rush (D–IL), the senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy.

Last month, 26 Senate Democrats and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont wrote a similar letter to Collins, urging him to renew the program.

*Clarification, 17 November, 2:51 p.m.: This article has been changed to add more detail on the number of, and spending on, gun research awards funded by NIH’s 2014–17 funding opportunity entitled “Research on the Health Determinants and Consequences of Violence and its Prevention, Particularly Firearm Violence.”

*Correction, 17 November, 2:51 p.m.: This article originally cited a New York Times opinion article which stated that NIH funded just three grants related to firearms injuries from 1973–2012. That number is incorrect. According to NIH’s REPORTER database, the agency funded 22 awards with “firearm or firearms” in their titles or abstracts between 1985, the first year included in the database, and 2014, just before the Obama-era firearms research initiative was launched. Other grants funded during these years lacked these words but were relevant to firearm research.

This article also originally stated that 22 awards have been funded under the gun research initiative. The correct number is 23.