Nearly a year after President Barack Obama ended a 17-year-long virtual freeze on the federal funding of gun-violence research, that thaw has not yet produced scientific breakthroughs because America still lacks the money and minds to churn out pivotal studies on the topic, medical experts contend.
Obama — propelled by the Newtown school shootings — urged Congress in January to provide $10 million to finance fresh academic investigations into the impacts of firearms on the collective health of Americans. While that money may be allocated in 2014, U.S. lawmakers have not yet invested adequate dollars to study the issue and, so far, that lack of funding has failed to entice researchers to answer the president’s call, say two physicians who specialize in gunfire injuries.
President Barack Obama speaks on proposals to reduce gun violence as Vice President Joe Biden watches on Jan. 16, 2013 in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House in Washington, D.C.
“Lifting the ban has not produced much of anything at this time. We lack researchers who have firearms-related research as their niche,” said Dr. Denise Dowd, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention. “Since the ban has been in place since 1996, those who did this type of research had to move on to other work, by necessity … It will take time to develop new people to do the work. Congress needs to appropriate funding for such research."
Firearms kill nearly 31,000 Americans a year, according to the U.S. Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Public funding for research to help curb gun violence totals about $2 million per year, according Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group. The National Institutes of Health will spend $1.28 billion this year researching heart disease, which kills about 600,000 Americans a year.
But an intensified era of gun-violence scrutiny may arrive in 2014.
In October, the National Institute of Justice awarded nearly $2 million for four separate studies that will explore an array of firearms questions, including how to disrupt illegal gun transfers and how to reduce youth access to firearms.
Meanwhile, leaders at NIH -- acting "in response" to Obama’s push -- asked researchers to submit proposals this January for three long-term studies “with particular focus on firearm violence,” the agency announced in September.
"This is really good news,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the University of California, Davis, Violence Research Program and an expert on firearms violence. "I’m sure all around the country people are writing research proposals. We’re certainly doing one here."
The full price for the three NIH studies is unclear, but wording in the agency's requests indicates program spending won't exceed $800,000 annually. NIH will pay for the studies via its existing annual appropriation, said Renate Myles, agency spokeswoman.
"NIH has been supporting research on violence and its implications for health for many years. The violence resulting from firearms was included" in past studies, Myles said. In 2012, the NIH committed $154 million to "violence research."
The epicenter of the research ban is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Until the mid-1990s, the CDC had explored a range of questions on the public health effects of firearms. In 1996, the National Rifle Association convinced key Congressional leaders to stifle federal funding for gun-violence research. At the same time, an appropriations bill killed the CDC's annual $2.6 million budget for firearms studies.
"The message was pretty clear for those of us at CDC centers at the time: 'Firearm injury research will not be funded," said Dowd, who in 1996 worked at the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle.
An NRA spokesman did not respond to interview requests from NBC News.
In ending the federal-funding blockade in January, the White House issued an accompanying statement in which the president directed the "CDC and other research agencies to conduct research into the causes and prevention of gun violence."
The result thus far?
The CDC this year asked the Institute of Medicine to convene a committee to identify the most pressing research questions on gun violence. That spawned a June 5 report, listing at least seven questions, including: "What characteristics differentiate mass shootings that were prevented from those that were carried out?" and "Do programs to alter physical environments in high-crime areas result in a decrease in firearm violence?"
The status of answering those questions?
"CDC does not currently receive dedicated funding to conduct this type of research," said Courtney N. Lenard, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, part of the CDC.
That $10 million that Obama asked Congress to provide for gun-violence research would go directly to CDC. Under the federal budgeting cycle, the president's request is part of the CDC's proposed 2014 fiscal-year allocations budget. Congress has not yet finalized those appropriations, Lenard said.
But Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, predicts U.S. lawmakers will not hand CDC any money for gun-research projects.
"The odds of Congress appropriating funding for it are slim to nil because the past track records of experts picked by the Centers for Disease Control to do their studies has been so skewed," Gottlieb said. "Our concern is, in the past, the government research done by the Centers for Disease Control has been extremely biased [against firearms]. That's why we opposed funding of it."
During the 17-year federal ban, there's also been "very little" private money available for gun-violence research, Wintemute said. That seems to be changing, he added, pointing to an umbrella group called the Fund for a Safer Future, formed in 2011 after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others.
That umbrella group -- launched by the Joyce Foundation, which advocates gun control -- has asked researchers to submit proposals by this January for studies to help answer the question: "What works to prevent gun violence?" The Fund for a Safer Future vows to select and supportprojects, paying between $25,000 and $300,000, that will result in peer-reviewed, published articles within three years.
The array of new and looming gun studies -- both public and private -- "are concrete developments," Wintemute said, "statements that they intend to provide money for work in this field for a long while to come."
First published December 13 2013, 1:46 AM