In the wake of the Las Vegas concert shooting, the deadliest mass shooting in recent American history, health experts are urging the National Institutes of Health to renew funding for gun violence research that expired earlier this year.
Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, President Obama directed health agencies to fund research into firearms — leading the NIH, which has an annual budget of $34 billion, to award a total of $18 million for nearly two dozen different research projects. But that program was scheduled to end in January 2017, days before President Trump took office, and the agency has not renewed it.
A spokesperson for the NIH told STAT that the renewal of the funding program “is still under consideration,” and the agency will keep accepting gun violence research proposals “submitted to existing general funding opportunity announcements.” But doctors and public health experts say the Las Vegas tragedy should underscore to the NIH the importance of specific funding devoted to the tragic health consequences of gun violence.
“We all feel keenly how important it is to study firearm violence the day after, the week after, a tragedy occurs in our country,” said Rinad Beidas, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “But the urgency tends to fade with time. Having a standing program announcement that says, ‘Hey, this is important, this is something we want to support,’ signals to the research community that this work needs to be done.”
Research paid for under the NIH “Research on the Health Determinants and Consequences of Violence and its Prevention, Particularly Firearm Violence” funding opportunity since 2014 has looked at the effects of gun violence on children’s mental health and future firearm use, the role alcohol and drug use plays in gun owners engaging in violent behavior, and potential interventions to reduce negative health risks in communities mired in gun violence.
The NIH’s funding for this line of study stood in stark contrast to the federal government’s recent position in funding gun violence research. Since the late ’90s, a measure known as the Dickey Amendment has strongly dissuaded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding gun violence research. Even though guns injured more than 4 million people between 1973 and 2012, the NIH had awarded far fewer grants to gun violence research than to the study of rare diseases in the U.S. like cholera, polio, and rabies during that period, according to researchers.
Though the NIH hasn’t recently funded studies focused on mass shootings, Dr. Sanjeev Sriram, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine, believes the agency’s renewal of the funding program would create more opportunities to study successful strategies in preventing mass shootings.
“There are tons of questions we [have] about mass shootings,” Sriram said. “There’s research that can be done, like looking at the factors that have allowed communities to prevent a mass shooting.”
John Hopkins University medical student Justin Lowenthal, who helps lead the gun violence prevention campaign for the advocacy group Doctors for America, said extensive research into issues like car safety and smoking risks has saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the decades. But, he said, researchers have faced roadblocks to preventing deaths by gun violence — and, in some cases, have even received death threats themselves.
“Science and medicine is about keeping an open mind until you see the problem,” he said. “We can’t even get close to figuring out how to prevent tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting from happening [without research].”
Charles Branas, who chairs the epidemiology department at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, believes that factors leading up to mass shootings should be studied. More importantly, though, he said that issues like gun suicides should receive greater attention given that they affect a wide swath of Americans living both in large cities and small rural towns. If people saw gun violence as a national public health issue like opioids, rather than a threat to the Second Amendment, the effort to study firearms might gain more support, he said.
“Gun violence is everyone’s problem,” Branas said. “Everyone’s at risk. If the event in Las Vegas doesn’t demonstrate that, I don’t know what does.”