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What Researchers Learned About Gun Violence Before Congress Killed Funding

Memo Pad

What Researchers Learned About Gun Violence Before Congress Killed Funding


by Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica

President Obama has directed the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence as part of his legislative package on gun control. The CDC hasn’t pursued this kind of research since 1996 when the National Rifle Association lobbied Congress to cut funding for it, arguing that the studies were politicized and being used to promote gun control. We’ve interviewed Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who led the agency’s gun violence research in the nineties when he was the director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

We talked to Rosenberg about the work the agency was doing before funding was cut and how it’s relevant to today’s gun control debate. Here’s an edited transcript.

There’s been coverage recently about how Congress cut funding for gun violence research, but not much about what the agency was actually researching and what it was finding. You were in charge of that. Tell us a little bit about what the CDC was doing back then.

There were basically four questions that we were trying to answer. The first question is what is the problem? Who were the victims? Who was killed? Who were injured? Where did they happen? Under what circumstances? When? What times of the year? What times of the day? What was the relationship to other events? How did they happen? What were the weapons that were used? What was the relationship between the people involved? What was the motive or the setting in which they happened?

The second question is what are the causes? What are the things that increase one’s risk of being shot? What are the things that decrease one’s risk of being shot?

The third question we were trying to answer is what works to prevent these? What kinds of policies, what kinds of interventions, what kinds of police practices or medical practices or education and school practices actually might prevent some of these shootings? We’re not just looking at mass shootings, but also looking at the bulk of the homicides that occur every year and the suicides, which account for a majority of all gun deaths.

Then the last question is how do you do it? Once you have a program or policy that has been proven to work in one place, how do you spread it? How do you actually put it in place?

So what were you were able to find before funding got cut off?

One of the critical studies that we supported was looking at the question of whether having a firearm in your home protects you or puts you at increased risk. This was a very important question because people who want to sell more guns say that having a gun in your home is the way to protect your family.

What the research showed was not only did having a firearm in your home not protect you, but it hugely increased the risk that someone in your family would die from a firearm homicide. It increased the risk almost 300 percent, almost three times as high.

It also showed that the risk that someone in your home would commit suicide went up. It went up five-fold if you had a gun in the home. These are huge, huge risks, and to just put that in perspective, we look at a risk that someone might get a heart attack or that they might get a certain type of cancer, and if that risk might be 20 percent greater, that may be enough to ban a certain drug or a certain product.

But in this case, we’re talking about a risk not 20 percent, not 100 percent, not 200 percent, but almost 300 percent or 500 percent. These are huge, huge risks.

I understand there was also an effort to collect data on gun violence through something called the Firearm Injury Surveillance System. What did that involve?

We were collecting information to answer the question of who, what, where, when, and how did shootings occur?

We were finding that most homicides occur between people who know each other, people who are acquaintances or might be doing business together or might be living together. They’re not stranger-on-stranger shootings. They’re not mostly home intrusions.

We also found that there were a lot of firearm suicides, and in fact most firearm deaths are suicides. There were a lot of young people who were impulsive who were using guns to commit suicide.

So if you were able to continue this work, what kind of data do you think would be available today?

I think we’d know much more information about what sorts of weapons are used in what sorts of firearm deaths and injuries.

Let’s say you look at robbery associated homicides, and you find that in those homicides certain weapons are used in almost all of them and that these weapons come from a limited number of sources and that those weapons are not used by people to defend their home or to hunt or to target-shoot. Then you can say, “Here’s a type of weapon that seems to be only used in criminal enterprises and doesn’t seem to have any legitimate uses, and maybe we ought to find a way to restrict the sales or access to that type of weapon.”

I think it’s also important to look at what the impact of these data might be.

If you look at how many deaths have occurred between 1996, when there was this disruption to surveillance and research, and now, so that’s 16 years, and if you assume that there are about 30,000 gun deaths every year, you’re talking about 480,000 gun deaths over that period of time.

If even a fraction of those deaths could have been prevented, you’re talking about a significant impact in terms of saving lives.

Lawmakers are now trying to figure out what the most effective policies might be to curb gun violence, and how to implement them. What were you beginning to find on that?

The largest question in this category is what kind of larger policies work? Does it work, for example, if you have an assault weapon ban? Does that reduce the number of firearm injuries and deaths? In truth, we don’t know the answer to that. That requires evaluation.

Does gun licensing and registration work to reduce firearm injuries and death? We don’t have the answer.

The policies that make it easier to carry concealed weapons, do those reduce or do those increase firearm injuries and deaths? We don’t have the answer. Do gun bans, like they have in the city of Chicago, work? We don’t have the answer yet to those.

These require large-scale studies of large numbers of people, over a long period of time, to see if they work or don’t.

I don’t think those studies were fully funded or completed.

How do you think the gun control debate might be different today, if you had been allowed to continue that research?

I would like to think that we would have had answers to what works and what doesn’t work. I would hope that we know whether the kind of bans and restrictions that they have in Chicago really make a difference or don’t. I would hope that we would have had information about whether an assault-weapon ban saves lives or doesn’t. Unfortunately, when you don’t have those data that really show you, scientifically, whether or not something works, then you end up with people making statements like, “Obviously, the assault-weapon ban didn’t work, because Columbine happened.”

That’s kind of like saying, “Vaccines don’t work because someone got the flu.”

The Obama administration is asking Congress for $10 million to pursue gun-related research. If you had that budget and you had your old job, what would you use the money to look at?

I think we’d want to look at what the impact of different policies would be, both restricting and enabling policies.

The other thing that I would make sure we looked at is not just how do we prevent firearm injuries, but how do we also protect the rights of legitimate gun owners? I think it would be very important to look, for example, at legislation that restricts access by certain people to firearms.

People often think that there are maybe three things we should consider passing right now, something like an assault-weapons ban, a ban on large-capacity magazines, and background checks on all gun purchasers.

The truth is that there’s not going to be a simple, magic pill or even three pills that cure the whole problem. If you look at suicides and the whole range of homicides and firearm injuries, the answers are going to come, bit by bit, over time, incrementally.

It’s not one, two or even three things that are really going to solve the problem. They may solve our conscience, but they won’t solve the problem. The research is really, really important. We really need to find out what works, so that we can save more lives.

It’s been presented to people that research is going to hurt legitimate gun owners. That’s the threat and how the NRA leadership has often presented it to the NRA membership. “Any sort of research is only going to result in your losing all your guns.”

That’s a tactic of fear. It’s not at all the case. There are things we can do that will both reduce firearm injuries and protect the legitimate rights of gun owners and protect the children and their families.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images


  1. nobsartist February 26, 2013

    I dont blame them for cutting funding from the CDC. Any “medical” organization that clings to the fact that marijuana and heroin are the same needs to be de-funded for gross stupidity.

  2. CJR February 26, 2013

    This is what happens when politicians meddle in scientific funding. if it doesn’t say what they want it, they kill it.

  3. sigrid28 February 26, 2013

    Until sound science replaces NRA talking points (meant to increase sales by firearms manufacturers), our best chance to pass sensible legislation to limit gun violence will be that the number of gullible gun enthusiasts will be reduced over time, because of the greater likelihood that they will kill themselves and other family members, due to the vastly higher risk of dying from firearms in these households. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the collateral damage of failing to limit the number of households with guns in them, promoted by the NRA, will be the deaths of innocent family members, many of them children, and others suffering from depression who succumb to suicide more readily because of the presence of a gun in the household.

    Meanwhile, advocates for curtailing gun violence will have time to push through funding for the scientific research needed to understand how firearms can have a place in our society without destroying it. Perhaps irresponsible gun enthusiasts can be convinced to vote for policies based on facts agreed to by nonpartisan members of the scientific community. If not, their numbers will continue to decline.

    1. justalittlefocusplease February 26, 2013

      Consider this, you are driving your car on the interstate at high speeds and it suddenly loses power and stalls out causing the vehicle to go into a terrible skid. You lose control during the skid and an accident occurs. The accident results in serious injuries and death. Who’s at fault? The car, the car manufacture or the idiot who failed to put gas in it. One gun or multiple guns in a household does not increase the risk of death but the untrained and irresponsible “idiot” behind them does. Hold the person accountable, not the technology object.

      Also, I was shocked to hear that people with suicidal tendencies that have access to guns tend to use guns to commit suicide more often than those who don’t have access. Well, not really.

  4. Stephen K. Trynosky February 26, 2013

    I am shocked, no make that shocked and amazed to find out that people who own guns are much more likely to commit suicide with a gun than people who do not have guns. Absolutely shocking and amazing.

  5. Warren Wilson February 26, 2013

    There’s no such thing as “gun control”.
    It’s PEOPLE control and I dont’ like it.
    I have guns. I control myself and my guns.
    Try to control me and I will resist.
    Try to take my guns and you will get them bullets first.
    We are a nation of laws, not personalities like Obozo.
    In the second detail added to our most sacred law we are guaranteed the right to bear arms.
    This was to defend ourselves against tyranny.
    As long as we have guns, tyrants will try to take them from you.
    This is the first sign someone is a tyrant.
    In other words, the people who try to take guns are the bad guys.
    Be a good guy.
    Buy a gun, get training, use good judgement, and be ready to protect your loved ones.
    Obama is in correct company: Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Melosevich, Stalin.
    The NRA started the civil rights movement by arming blacks in the south agaisnt the KKK.
    Be an American, not a douche.

    1. sigrid28 February 26, 2013

      If you did control yourself, you would not publish ideas that have no factual basis. It is patently false that the Civil Rights movement had anything to do with arming blacks, because it was non-violent by definition. You are just a glutton for any lie the NRA feeds you.

      If you did control yourself, you would not resort to name-calling. Showing your readers the courtesy of spelling properly and using correct grammar would also be a sign of self control, but neither are evident in this post. You could have developed better communication skills if you had had more self control in school.

      If you had self-control, you would not need to shoot anyone who attempted to take away your guns. First, a person with self control would not give an opponent the opportunity to kill you in self defense. Second, a person with self control might be able to come up with a better idea than shooting at people with whom you disagree. If you had self-control, you would not feel–or actually be–helpless without a gun.

      A person with self control would not willingly endanger his family by having a weapon in his home. The likelihood of a family member being injured by your gun paraphernalia is higher than the likelihood that you will ever need to use a firearm in self defense. This is one case in which believing NRA lies could bring unbearable harm within your own household. But you are just too lazy and stubborn to learn any different.

  6. retsam369 February 26, 2013

    Very nice! You found one idiot that thinks your way and want us to “take his word.” There are numerous other studies that prove this nit wit has it all wrong. Don’t take my word for it contact John Lott for an accurate report!

    1. Sand_Cat February 27, 2013

      Where are all these “numerous other studies,” besides in your fevered imagination? And who is John Lott?

  7. retsam369 February 26, 2013

    PS: You people gave away your line of thinking when I first opened the comments section and was greeted with sending a message to barry/bho, telling him to do soething about gun control!

    1. Sand_Cat February 27, 2013

      It’s called a paid advertisement, moron.

  8. Jack Crowe Jr. February 26, 2013

    A number of years ago, while employed by an Organizationthat was focused towards “Injury Control”, my participation in a Federal “Research” Contract taught me the “Rules ” of Government Research!

    1. The conclusions of the Contracted Research Project will be presicely those we desire to be proven.

    2. Any “Fact” may be “Proven” by referencing a sufficient quantity of published Information.

    3. Should there be a shortage of published documentation to justify a “fact” one may paraphrase the recorded statements to make them interpretable as to the justification of a Conclusion or Fact!

    4. Although Figures never lie! Artful “Figure Manipulation ‘” may lead to their viewers to adopting the desired impressions.

    5. Utilize extraordinary caution in the wording of your “Research Protocols” Make extra certain that ALL conclusions were acheived by the utilization of the latest and most highly accepted and endorsed “Research Protocols”. Whether it was actually done or not IT MUST APPEAR THAT IT WAS!

    6. Describe, in exquisite detail, all of the efforts expended, (or which should have been expended) in ensuring the absolute reliability and integrity of the research findings.

    7. Include as much information in your “Research Findings Document”! The Thicker the Document the More Impressive it appears! Use as many “multisyllable and strange “Big ” words as possable. this validates the expanded “Authority” of the Researchers!

    8. All Information which conflicts with the desired conclusion(s) and too authoratitive to be ignored, may be concluded at the end of the document. If it MUST be included: it must be worded in the most Arcane, “Big”, Strange, Muilti-Syllable Words, that would even require a PHD to utilize a dictionary, in order to interperet. (NO ONE, PHD’s in particular, will use a dictionary to look them up)

    9. The Introductory Statement and the Closing Statement Must be worded in such a way that indicates the Stupidity of ever having to have the conclusions proven as thay should have been accepted public knowledge but diplomatically worded so not only will a “General Public” reader not be offended but enlightened by the Statements and rhe REsearch Document!

    10. Any similarity between the Desired ( the Research Findings) Research Conclusions and REALITY, MAY Be Only Coincidental. Since we got what we want we will look no further. No other ientity or Organization has the funding to prove you in error!



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