Gun Violence Research: A Matter of Academic Freedom

Yesterday, even before the horrendous events in San Bernardino, physicians with Doctors for America, the National Physicians Alliance, Doctors Council, American Medical Women’s Association, American College of Preventive Medicine, The Committee of Interns and Residents, Physicians for the Prevention of Gun Violence, American Medical Student Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and Reps. David Price, Nita Lowey, Mike Thompson, Robin Kelly and Mike Quigley publicly urged Congress to end the effective ban on the ability for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund research on gun violence.

This ban is effectively a politically-motivated restriction on the academic freedom of scholars to pursue legitimate research in the public interest and must be opposed as such by all faculty and supporters of academic freedom. 

As a press release issued by Doctors for America noted,

Over 2,000 doctors in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia signed a petition urging Congress to remove these barriers to common sense research that have existed for nearly 20 years and include annual funding to identify causes and ways to prevent gun violence.

“Gun violence is a public health problem that kills 90 Americans a day,”said Dr. Alice Chen, Executive Director of Doctors for America.“Physicians believe it’s time to lift this effective ban and fund the research needed to save lives. We urge Congress to put patients over politics to help find solutions to our Nation’s gun violence crisis.”

“Gun violence is among the most difficult public health challenges we face as a country, but because of the deeply misguided ban on research, we know very little about it,” said Rep. David Price. “Regardless of where we stand in the debate over gun violence, we should all be able to agree that this debate should be informed by objective data and robust scientific research. I am pleased to join members of the medical community from around the country to call for the ban’s repeal, which would allow for a more honest dialogue about possible solutions to the gun violence epidemic.”

In 1996, under intense pressure from the gun lobby, Congress added an amendment to an appropriations bill that effectively blocked the CDC from carrying out the necessary research to better understand how to prevent gun violence. In addition to the ban, Congress also cut funding for gun violence research and, in 2011, extended the research restriction to the NIH. The result of these actions has had a chilling effect on gun violence research.

Representative Jay Dickey (R-AR), the author, has stated repeatedly that he regrets offering the amendment and thinks it should be repealed. Despite Rep. Dickey’s comments and President Obama’s executive action in 2013 directing the CDC to resume gun violence research, Congress has provided no funding, and the restrictive language remains in place.

“For over 20 years, politicians have put a gag order on public health research for gun violence only to score political points” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney. “On public health matters, it’s critical we listen to doctors—not politicians. Every day 89 people die because of gun violence, and we cannot let politics get in the way of our response to this epidemic. That’s why it’s essential to remove these obstructive riders and pass my bill to fund public health research on gun violence.”

Since 1996, the federal government has spent $240 million a year on traffic safety research, which has saved 360,000 lives since 1970.  During the same period, there has been almost no publicly funded research on gun violence, which kills the same number of people every year.  As a result, many questions remain unanswered on the most effective ways to prevent gun violence.

“There is not one good reason that the CDC and NIH shouldn’t be allowed to research the causes of gun violence,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, Chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. “Even Jay Dickey who wrote the amendment banning CDC research into the causes of gun violence thinks it should be done away with. Gun violence takes the lives of 30-plus Americans every single day. There are experts who are ready and able to conduct research on what can be done to stop it. The problem right now is they’re hamstrung. Doctors agree, medical professionals agree, even the author of the amendment agrees: it’s time let our experts do what they do best – conduct research that will save some lives.”

Physicians and public health professionals know that federal research is crucial to saving lives. Federal scientific data has driven policy to save lives from motor vehicle accidents, sudden infant death syndrome, lead poisoning, and countless other public health crises. Doctors believe it’s time for Congress to lift the effective ban, fund research, and save lives.

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