Despite being one of the leading causes of death in the US, gun violence has received very little federal research funding for decades. So a group of public health researchers are taking matters into their own hands, calling for their field to take the lead in securing private funding for studies of gun violence, and to push forward pragmatic gun safety rules at the local and state level.
The group of 80 people, consisting of deans and professors from 42 schools of public health as well as gun safety activists and politicians, first met in Boston in November 2016. The “agenda for action” that resulted from that meeting was published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.
“I have long felt that public health has to have a clear voice in this matter,” said Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health and lead author of the editorial.
Gun violence kills about 33,000 Americans annually, ranking it at approximately the 12th most common cause of death in the US, according to Dr. David Stark, a data scientist and professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. However, since 1996 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been prohibited from funding studies that might “advocate or promote gun control,” which has severely curtailed studies of gun violence. The NIH has been subject to a similar provision since 2012. (President Barack Obama did issue a memo in 2013 intended to loosen that restriction, although Galea said it hasn’t made a noticeable impact.)
As a result, research into the subject is underfunded by over $1 billion over a decade relative to the other 30 leading causes of death in the US, according to a recent JAMA study.
Galea and colleagues believe private foundations may help fill the funding gap. Many foundations already fund research on gun violence, including the Joyce Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The editorial proposes that schools of public health convene a national meeting of private foundations to better learn what their funding priorities are.
“In my ideal world, I would consider engagement with all types of foundations,” Galea said, possibly including health care- or shooting sports-oriented foundations.
The editorial also called for public health researchers to arrange conversations between academics and gun advocates, and to help develop state-level gun safety laws.
Jeffrey Swanson, a psychiatry professor at Duke University who was invited to the meeting but could not attend, agreed that there is a role for private foundations in funding firearm violence research. He has received support from both private foundations and government agencies for his work, with the majority coming from the former.
However, Swanson said he thinks that good progress is already being made on many issues the editorial raised. “I’m hopeful, far more than I would have been a few years ago, that this is a viable area for research and that there is a productive conversation afoot between policy and research, with the caveat that there is some uncertainty with respect to the regime change in Washington,” he said.
There may be a bit less uncertainty by March 17, when the group of public health researchers will next convene at the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health meeting in Arlington, Va. At that meeting, Galea said they plan to begin discussing concrete steps to put their plan into action.