WASHINGTON — House members and expert witnesses at a Thursday hearing tussled over whether federal dollars are needed to study gun violence.
The NIH had a 3-year initiative aimed at exploring the “epidemic of gun violence,” but the agency chose not to extend it, said Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the House Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Now, she and her Democratic colleagues want those funds restored, and they want to target funding for the CDC to support additional research.
Gun violence is a “public health emergency” killing more Americans since 1968 than all of the nations’ wars combined, she said.
“As our witnesses will attest, the 20-year gap in CDC research has left a vast void in our understanding of how to prevent gun violence. CDC is the nation’s public health agency, and therefore it must be involved,” DeLauro said.
One witness and several Republicans on the subcommittee, including Ranking Member Tom Cole (R-Okla.), questioned the need to dedicate federal dollars to either agency, arguing that researchers themselves should determine how funding is spent.
John Lott Jr., PhD, president of Crime Prevention Research Center and a FoxNews.com columnist, said that there is enough private funding from institutions like the RAND Corp. and billionaire donors such as Michael Bloomberg and George Soros to support gun violence research.
He argued that those who say there aren’t enough peer-reviewed studies on gun violence focus narrowly on medical journals and should also be looking at the work of economists and criminologists. Lott also said the medical research is poorly done, leveraging templates that might work for studying drug efficacy but don’t fit gun violence because there are so many factors outside researchers’ control.
He pointed to one research project costing hundreds of thousand of dollars that culminated in one paper eight pages long.
“It’s almost criminal the way federal resources are wasted,” Lott said.
Said Cole, “We need to be careful stewards of our limited resources. The money we spend needs to make a difference as opposed to making a political point.”
He also defended the so-called “Dickey Amendment” of 1997 barring the CDC from funding “gun control advocacy,” and voiced concern that researchers might be influenced by their values.
DeLauro brought up the Dickey amendment in her opening statement, saying it had a “chilling” and “severely discouraging” effect on gun violence research.
Asked what specific questions researchers should be studying, Daniel Webster, ScD, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research, said that more background data is needed about the individuals who commit crimes with firearms and how they obtain guns.
While there is data on lethal outcomes and their associations with various interventions, researchers lack information on non-fatal woundings at a state level, he added. These are “central questions” that have not been investigated, he said.
RAND scientist Andrew Morral, PhD, testified that he’d like to see “permitless carry,” gun-free zones and “Stand Your Ground” laws explored.
And Ronald Stewart, MD, director of trauma programs for American College of Surgeons’ Committee on Trauma, stressed the need to better understand “structural violence,” meaning factors that place populations “in harm’s way,” such as poverty, stigmatization, and social isolation.
Stewart, who said he’d talked with people from New England to west Texas, emphasized that finding “common ground” is important and that any action taken by Congress must be bipartisan.
At the close of the hearing, Cole appeared slightly more conciliatory: “If you’ve got some legitimate ideas, go out and do them. We’re not trying to stop you from researching” gun violence, he said.
DeLauro flatly disagreed. She cited statements by CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, last year that, while there aren’t any restrictions on gun violence research, the agency needs a “funding mechanism.”
“We are poised to research in this area if Congress chooses to give us additional funding,” DeLauro quoted Redfield as saying.
And, shaking three sheets of highlighted paper in her hand, she also refuted Cole’s assertion that Congress dislikes earmarking funds for specific types of research.
“We have directed millions to cancer research, to Alzheimer’s, to … brain research. We are earmarking, yes we are, to these areas,” she said. (Indeed, the Defense Department has a whole suite of “Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs” covering more than 30 diseases — many not clearly service-connected, such as breast cancer, autism, and neurofibromatosis.)
“We talked here about opioids,” DeLauro continued. “We don’t hesitate for a moment to say, ‘We need to do something about it’ and yet for 20 years, we have been unable, [with] federal dollars, to look at research into gun violence prevention.”