A week after Penn professors called for renewed funding for gun violence research, President Barack Obama announced an aggressive gun policy agenda.
In a press announcement Wednesday afternoon, Obama outlined proposals to Congress and a series of 23 executive actions to curb gun violence in response to last month’s mass shooting in a Connecticut elementary school.
He will issue an executive order for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to renew funding for research into the causes of gun violence. This funding has been stifled because the appropriations bill that finances the CDC stipulates that federal grant money not be used to “advocate or promote gun control.”
Over 100 researchers — including 24 Penn professors — called for the restoration of the funds in a letter to Vice President Joe Biden and his task force on gun violence. The commission’s recommendations were delivered to Obama earlier this week.
The president argued that doing baseline research on gun violence does not constitute advocacy of any particular policy, and therefore should be allowed under the current legislation.
The Association of American Universities — of which Penn President Amy Gutmann is on the 11-member executive committee — endorsed legislation to be introduced tomorrow based on Obama’s proposals to remove funding barriers for gun violence research. The AAU also signed a statement earlier this month calling for a ban on certain assault weapons.
“Because of the way the legislative mandate is written, it’s been broadly interpreted to make the agencies hesitant to fund anything to do with research on gun violence,” said Therese Richmond, Nursing professor and research director at the Firearm and Injury Center at Penn, who signed the letter to Biden. “It’s put quite a damper on building science and knowledge of how we can keep people free from injury in a world that has a lot of guns.”
Obama also called on Congress to appropriate an additional $10 million for firearm research.
“With funds made available again, [it would] provide insight,” said School of Social Policy and Practice professor Susan Sorenson, who also signed the letter. “We haven’t been able to ask the questions we need to answer.”
In addition, Obama clarified a provision in the 2010 Affordable Care Act that has been interpreted as prohibiting doctors from asking patients about gun ownership and storage habits. According to the executive summary of Obama’s proposals, the ACA “does not prevent doctors from talking to patients about gun safety.”
In addition to Richmond, Director of the Philadelphia Collaborative Violence Prevention Center and professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine Joel Fein praised the clarification.
“It is very important to us that we don’t stymie the relationship between physicians and their patients by preventing them from asking about guns and gun safety in their homes,” Fein said.
Richmond — who is also a nurse practitioner — added that it is standard practice to ask patients about similar health risks, such as whether they have smoke detectors in their homes and whether they have unprotected sex.
“[Data about gun ownership] is now included in things like the electronic health record and trauma registries,” she said. “Researchers can mine that data to answer important questions.”
Among Obama’s recommended legislative actions is a ban on “military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.” Congress did not renew the previous assault weapons ban in 2004.
However, it may be unlikely that a renewed assault weapons ban could become law. While the measure might pass in the Democratically-controlled Senate, it could be stifled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
“Is it something that can pass the Senate? Maybe. Is it something that can pass the House? I doubt it,” Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, said on Friday.
Instead, Reid said the Senate would focus on passing legislation that would be viable in the House.
However, some who support a ban on assault weapons would also like to see further actions.
“I think the most important thing that comes out is an honest dialogue outlining what we would consider rational measures to prevent gun violence,” Fein said. “Not just with large assault rifles and magazines, but also smaller guns in the community.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 75 percent of murders by firearms were committed with handguns — which would be unaffected by an assault weapons ban — in 2005, the last year for which data is available.
Professors emphasized that today’s proposals are a beginning, not a final measure.
“Funding for [research] and other violence prevention activities can be achieved by implementing a federal tax on ammunition,” SP2 Dean Richard Gelles said in an email. “I would propose a tax of $10 per bullet, rising to $50 per bullet over five years.”
Sorenson saw the need for Congressional action following Obama’s executive actions.
“No single item will produce a substantial reduction in gun deaths,” Sorenson said. “It will need a combination of multiple [initiatives].”
Fein agreed that there is no cure-all for violence.
“It’s a multifaceted issue,” he said. “It’s a pervasive public health problem that we’re trying to address.”
Associate News Editor Alex Zimmermann contributed reporting.
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