Victor J. Dzau and Mark Rosenberg: How research can help us address gun violence

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 25, 2018

By Victor J. Dzau and Mark Rosenberg 

Special to The Washington Post

Most Americans would agree that gun violence is one of the defining societal problems of our time. But it is also a public-health problem that we can solve — and we can do it without infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens to have guns.

Science alone won’t be able to solve gun violence, which claimed 38,658 lives in 2016 and injured many more. But viewing gun violence as a public-health problem worthy of research has a lot to offer and can provide a way forward that brings together advocates on both sides of the gun violence debate.

So what is stopping us? The common refrain is that Congress banned research on gun violence, but that’s not correct. The real obstacle is a lack of funding.

In 1996, Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., attached an amendment to the annual appropriations bill for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stipulating that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” This has appeared in every CDC spending bill thereafter.

The Dickey amendment does not ban research; it bans the CDC from advocating gun-control policies. Those are two distinct things. In fact, we believe the amendment should remain in the appropriations bill as a policy guardrail to focus the research on data collection and analysis that would inform policymakers. It assures legislators that funds appropriated for research will be used only for research.

But to get the research going, Congress needs to appropriate funding. In 2013, shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting, President Barack Obama directed federal agencies to improve their understanding of the causes of gun violence and how to prevent it. In response, the CDC commissioned a consensus report, drawing lessons from the marquee public-health victories of the 20th century — such as reductions in motor vehicle injuries, unintentional poisonings and tobacco use — and laying out priorities for research that would yield actionable insights in a three- to five-year time frame.

A public-health approach to preventing gun violence can help us understand the problem and lead us to solutions that will offer dramatic reductions in deaths and injuries — in much the same manner that our nation improved highway traffic safety through research leading to seat belts, air bags and safer road designs.

Congress has an opportunity to do this by including funding for gun-violence research in this year’s appropriations process, and we urge lawmakers to do so.

How can research help address gun violence? By answering a few questions: First, what is the problem? Who gets shot, and by whom? Also, when, where and how do these shootings happen? Second, what are the causes? What is the role of mental illness, of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, gangs, and access to firearms? What causes someone to pull the trigger to kill someone else or themselves? Third, what works to prevent the different types of shootings and to protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners?

To judge whether something works, we need to test it rigorously and without bias to develop a base of scientific evidence.

Finally, how can we implement potential interventions? How can a proven intervention that is both safe and effective be scaled up to reach every community in America? How can those effective interventions be translated into policy and legislation?

For example, gun-rights advocates point out that we need to make sure gun laws already on the books are fully implemented. The church shooting last November in Sutherland Springs, Texas, showed that we need to do much better in implementing laws designed to keep guns away from people who have previous domestic-violence convictions.

Our legislators and government executives need research to develop laws and regulations that will protect our communities and protect our rights. It is not a question of either/or. With the information that science can deliver, we can do both.

After the July 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, Dickey called for an end to the de facto freeze on federal gun research. Dickey concluded that the needed research should have started decades before.

Dickey died in 2017, but we agreed with his call to action six years ago, and we know he would agree with us now that Congress should act to fund research into gun-violence prevention.

Dizau is president of the National Academy of Medicine. Rosenberg is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and was founding director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.