A group of researchers — including 24 Penn professors — sent a letter to Vice President Joe Biden and his commission on gun violence calling for renewed federal funding for gun violence research.
The letter, which had over 100 signatories and was sent under a University of Chicago Crime Lab letterhead last week, argues that research on gun violence has been thwarted by “politically-motivated constraints.” It urges the removal of funding barriers and emphasizes the importance of investing in gun violence research.
“The government likes to talk about having a conversation about things quite often,” said Clinical Research Director in the Department of Emergency Medicine Judd Hollander, who signed the letter. “But I think in the end, if you’re going to have a conversation on something, you have to base it on fact.”
These professors are not the only Penn faculty members to take a stance on gun violence. The Association of American Universities’ executive committee — of which Penn President Amy Gutmann a member — signed a statement this month essentially calling for a ban on certain assault weapons, among other things. The AAU’s statement reflects the official position of the University on gun violence, Vice President for Government and Community Affairs Jeffrey Cooper said in an interview earlier this month.
The letter to Biden specifically targets the appropriations bill that funds the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, which restricts any research funding from being used to “advocate or promote gun control.” While this is not an outright ban on gun violence research, it has made the agencies very conservative in financing any studies on the topic.
“Federal scientific funds should not be used to advance ideological agendas on any topic,” the letter reads. “Yet that legislative language has the effect of discouraging the funding of well-crafted scientific studies.”
The funding barrier was put in place in the mid-1990s, during a time when the CDC was ramping up its efforts to study gun violence, according to a 2011 New York Times article. A federally funded report found that having a gun in the house was correlated with a higher rate of homicide by a family member or close friend.
The National Rifle Association, alarmed by the findings, lobbied its Congressional allies to defund the arm of the CDC studying the effects of gun ownership and to put in place the restrictive legislative language. Since then, the number of researchers studying gun violence has dwindled.
“We don’t know anything that’s less than 20 years old about national patterns of gun violence,” said Dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice Richard Gelles, who also signed the letter. He added that debates over policies to reduce gun violence are irresolvable without better data.
“I think social policy should be evidence-based, and when the policymakers make it impossible to get evidence, something has to change,” he said.
Even prior to the funding restrictions, there was no sustained effort to study the effects of gun violence.
The NIH has financed only three studies on injuries caused by firearms — which account for over four million deaths since 1973 — in the past 40 years. It has funded almost 500 studies on four infectious diseases that account for just over 2,000 deaths over the same time period, according to reports cited in the letter.
“It’s obscene to have an issue that’s so important and not be able to provide data so we can make the right decision,” Hollander said.
Epidemiology professor Charles Branas — who signed the letter and sent a similar letter independently earlier this month — emphasized the importance of controlled laboratory research on firearm use, which he said “has essentially been ended.”
Branas cited a small-scale study he conducted examining the effects of alcohol on firearm use as an example of the type of controlled experiment he hopes to see in the future.
“It’s the same line of research that was really effective in informing policy for drunk driving laws,” Branas said. There is “no reason” not to fund it, he added.
President Barack Obama ordered the formation of the gun violence commission — the members of which include law enforcement officials such as Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey — in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre last month. Biden, who is leading the task force, has said it is looking into “the ability of any agency to do research on the issue of gun violence.”
The commission is expected to release its recommendations later this week.