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Chiding Congress: Seattle first city to fund gun violence research

Crime scene investigators remove evidence the scene of a May shooting in Seattle that left six people dead, including the gunman. The Seattle City Council is poised to fund original research into the causes and effects of gun violence.
Crime scene investigators remove evidence the scene of a May shooting in Seattle that left six people dead, including the gunman. The Seattle City Council is poised to fund original research into the causes and effects of gun violence.Anthony Bolante / Reuters file

SEATTLE -- This city known for its left-coast liberalism is poised to become the first in the nation to provide direct funding for research into the causes and effects of gun violence.

In a move aimed in part at rebuking a 17-year congressional ban on federally funded studies of gun use, the Seattle City Council could allocate $153,000 to local injury prevention researchers as soon as next month.

“It will have significance in the fact that it’s a city doing it, not a state or a federal agency,” said Tim Burgess, the Seattle City Council member who has led the subcommittee promoting the cause. “It’s our statement against what Congress has prohibited for 17 or 18 years now. Shame on them for that.”

Burgess expects the proposal will be approved in April. If it is, the project will pay for access to and analysis of three large, public data sets in order to examine the relationship of substance abuse, mental illness, gun ownership, hospital injury admissions and deaths.

“One of the big needs right now is that there’s still a lack of data on the problems of gun violence,” said Dr. Frederick Rivara, a professor of pediatrics and a researcher at Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“One of the things that’s come up in this whole discussion of guns is mental illness and substance abuse. We’re planning to link existing data sets to identify that if you have these problems, what are the risks of having gun problems in the future?”

The hope would be to use the information to target high-risk patients and their families, and then offer interventions that might prevent future gun harm, Rivara said.

It’s a project that may have been funded by a federal agency such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a generation ago -- but not in recent years. Starting in the mid-1990s, members of Congress, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, cut the $2.6 million the agency previously had spent on original, peer-reviewed gun research and stipulated that no public dollars could be used “to advocate or promote gun control.” The money was later reinstated, but targeted toward traumatic brain injury, not the public health impact of gun violence.

In January, President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum reversing the ban, and calling on Congress to allocate $10 million for new research, part of a larger gun control plan. 

But the federal money has not been forthcoming, and is not likely to be, said Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the University of California, Davis, Violence Research Program and an expert on firearm violence.

“There is no money for research,” Wintemute said flatly.

The need for research became even more glaring after a December gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., left 20 children and six adults dead and galvanized a national conversation about gun violence.

“Everyone in the country was shocked by the affairs in Newtown,” Rivara said.

The tragedy resonated deeply in Seattle, where residents already were on edge after a string of high-profile shootings, including a May 2012 spree in which a mentally ill gunman killed four people at a popular café, killed another woman in a parking lot and then fatally shot himself.

Overall, in the U.S., nearly 32,000 people die each year from gun violence, according to the CDC. The city of Seattle logged a rate of 3.6 gun murders per 100,000 population in 2006-2007, according to latest CDC figures. That compares with a national rate of 4.2 firearm homicides per 100,000 population. The city's rate of adult gun suicides was 4.7 per 100,000, lower than the 5.0 per 100,000 rate nationally. 

Burgess said council members reached out to Rivara and his team at the city’s trauma hospital. “He identified the need to do this research and that this kind of research if vital to preventing gun violence.”

Using funds from the city's $4 billion 2013 budget, with a general fund of nearly $950 million, made sense, both in terms of meeting local needs and sending a national message, Burgess said.

“I believe that cities often lead the way on new policy and initiatives that spread to states, then spread to federal government,” he said.

Not everyone is pleased with the notion of the city using public funds for gun research, including Dave Workman, a senior editor at Gun Week magazine and a spokesman for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms in Bellevue, Wash., just outside of Seattle. 

"What you're talking about is a clever way to make a study with a pre-conceived conclusion that will say guns are bad," Workman said, adding later: "I'm sure there are better uses for that money."

Rivara and Burgess said that they believe Seattle will be the first to spend city funds on gun violence analysis. Representatives for the National League of Cities and the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns said they hadn’t heard of other cities paying for basic research.

The amount of money may seem modest, but it’s enough to produce significant results, Wintemute said.

“It’s not merely symbolic,” he said. They can do a really meaningful project with it. High quality work in one place can have a national effect.”

It will take about a year to gather and analyze the data, Rivara estimated. He hopes the results will be as successful as a previous effort to identify trauma patients with alcohol abuse issues. That research resulted in an intervention that has become a national model -- and reduced subsequent alcohol use and repeat trauma admissions by 50 percent, Rivara said.

He’s encouraged by the support of the city. Like Burgess, Rivara is optimistic that the funding request will be approved.

“I think we have a very informed citizenry as a whole and an informed city council,” he said. “They’d like to know what they can do on their part to help.”

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