How research on gun violence is muffled, and who refuses to shut up

On the first day in the new year, I read one of what will become thousands of similar stories that will be published this year in the United States about how firearms were involved in completely senseless and preventable violence.

To understand why we have so many shootings, one may wish to buy this book: Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes by Kyle Cassidy. Go to http://www.armedamerica.org/. The cover photo provides a shockingly good insight into the national crisis over gun related violence.

To understand why the United States has so many shootings, one may wish to buy this book, Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes, by Kyle Cassidy. Go to http://www.armedamerica.org/. This book cover photo offers one perspective on the national crisis over the nation’s gun-related violence.

In this particular instance, a 54-year-old woman reportedly shot a  24-year-old man in the thigh over a dispute that he was shooting fireworks at her property in rural Lake Stevens, Wash. No, I am not making this up.

While no one died in this New Year’s eve confrontation, the story barely received three paragraphs of news coverage, as it lacked the dramatic horror that the media exploit when mass homicides occur involving often-legally purchased weapons. There were no dead children or mentally deranged men in military gear loaded with weaponry. Were this story to occur in Canada, or say Japan, it would have received much different coverage.

While we may assume this seemingly “bland” shooting will be counted in national data, that is not guaranteed. It likely could be ignored.

In response to uncertainty over national data, Slate Magazine, on Jan. 1, 2013,  published a story called How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown?. The article alleges guns statistics are “surprisingly hard to come by.” Slate claims it will track the toll of gun related killings with an an anonymous publisher with the Twitter feed @GunsDeath to create an interactive tracking feature. The articles asks readers  who know about gun deaths in their community that are not counted on its interactive map  to tweet @GunDeaths with a citation, and it will be added to the feed.

brady center stat count

The Brady Center keeps a daily tab on gun violence–go to the right corner of the center’s home page for the shooting count, based on CDC data.

The Brady Center, the best known nonprofit that is working to pass legislative fixes to issues such as the sale of semi-automatic weapons and closing loopholes that allow for guns sales without background checks, uses data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (2008-09 estimates). It then makes an estimate of the number of killings a day that may not correspond to the most recent trends. The source data is captured by the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, reported and accessible through the web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System.

A lesson in how to silence public health researchers, and yes it is about the money

Slate’s professed shock at the lack of poor tracking of gun-related fatalities should actually surprise no one who has monitored the muzzling of research on gun-related violence since the 1990s by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the gun industry’s lobby, and its allies in Congress.

According to a newly published article by Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann and Dr. Frederick P. Rivara (both of whom have MPH degrees), in the Dec. 21, 2012, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, gun research at research universities that is funded by the federal government has been systematically quieted by pro-gun forces since a ban was enacted on the CDC in 1996, mainly through budget language. Pulling funding, in effect, silenced the nation’s public health agency on a critical public health issue.

The budget language, which remains in effect today, stated “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” While it is not clear why individual CDC officials or even highly paid medical and public health professionals have not more publicly risked their professional standing to challenge this language, the authors of the study note, “Extramural support for firearm injury prevention research quickly dried up. Even today, 17 years after this legislative action, the CDC’s website lacks specific links to information about preventing firearm-related violence.”

Rivara and Kellermann further state that the language restricting such research was expanded after a 2009 study that was federally funded, this time by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, if a gun increases or reduces the risk of firearm assault. Congress, in 2011, during the Obama administration and amid the Tea Party insurgency of 2010, “extended the restrictive language it had previously applied to the CDC to all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the National Institutes of Health.”

The two authors highlight other efforts taking place national to stifle medical professionals from speaking out, such as Florida’s law (HB 155), which put health care practitioners at risk of penalties, including the loss of their licenses, “‘if they discuss or record information about firearm safety that a medical board later determines was not ‘relevant’ or was ‘unnecessarily harassing.'”

How silencing plays out at research universities, quietly and likely without intent

This blog has reported that the silence within the research community can be found at major public health research programs, such as the University of Washington School of Public Health, which  I attended from 2010 to 2012. I was unable to find any faculty actively teaching future public health leaders–my classmates–about firearms safety research or gun violence in the school’s public health curricula.

It should be noted Dr. Rivara is an adjunct faculty member of the UW School of Public Health, and Dr. Kellermann and he are also graduates of the same school (for their MPH degrees). Dr. Kellerman was in fact my graduation commencement speaker, and proved to be a passionate scientist and advocate to all of us. However, my review of courses did not reveal any classes focussing on gun violence as a public health issue; this does not mean Dr. Rivara and other faculty did not cover this topic in their classes. (It should also be noted that a keyword search for “guns” on the UW SPH web site today, Jan. 2, 2013, yielded only three pages, one focussing on Dr. Rivara and another focussing on Dr. Kellerman.)

During my studies there, I repeatedly raised this anomaly to my professors and during seminars in front of as many faculty as possible–often to the point of becoming an annoyance to those who had heard me ask the same questions repeatedly. But short of actually sitting in on faculty strategy sessions or having any survey data, it is impossible for me to know the reasons why my former school choose not to include this topic in its curricula. There were and remain classes on issues that do receive federal funding: tobacco cessation, obesity and nutrition, maternal and child health, and much more. All are worthy topics, but these were the winners, guns was a loser.

My guess remains it was purely a matter of funding, or lack of funding, and the intense internal pressure on junior faculty to pursue research dollars highly coveted by all departments that were not tied to this pariah topic. Thus the silencing of research continued, without any alarm bells raised from a larger community of researchers, who should be the most active and who should have been leaders, locally and nationally. That is how it works.

Dr. Rivara’s primary role is as a faculty member at the UW School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics. To his credit, he has shown continued national leadership on gun violence. He and Dr. Kellerman deserve great praise for their lifelong service and work on this topic. Hopefully their article also will shame and embarrass their distinguished academic peers–locally and nationally–into either creating endowed teaching positions or a campaign drive to fund research that can shed light on this national public health crisis that has seized the nation’s attention since the massacre of 20 children and six faculty in a public school in Newtown, Conn. in December. MPH students also can lobby for change too, despite the hazards of confronting faculty who grade and often employ them as assistants.

Given that many faculty at these institutions can earn salaries well above $200,000 annually, some may be reluctant to jeopardize their professional careers or positions in the name of public-minded research on a topic that is at the center of one of the nation’s greatest moral debates since the Civil Rights movement and perhaps since the violent ending of slavery during the Civil War.

Gun researchers who have not been silenced by budget threats

Researchers not blocked by the ban on the CDC and NIH have shown that a prized policy goal of the NRA and gun makers, expanding “standing your ground laws,” have lead to more homicides.Researchers have found that states with a stand your ground law record more homicides than states without such laws.

Data from the study by Hoestra and Cheng, as published on the NPR.org web site (Jan. 2, 2013).

Data from the study by Hoekstra and Cheng, as published on the NPR.org web site (Jan. 2, 2013).

Two economics researchers at Texas A&M University, Mark Hoekstra and Cheng Cheng, found that the laws “do not deter burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault. In contrast, they lead to a statistically significant 8 percent net increase in the number of reported murders and non-negligent manslaughters.” The findings run counter to the argument of the primary proponent of such legislation, the NRA.

On average, there are about 500-700 more homicides a year among the 23 states with stand your ground laws because of these laws: “One possibility for the increase in homicide is that perhaps [in cases where] there would have been a fistfight … now, because of stand your ground laws, it’s possible that those escalate into something much more violent and lethal,” says Hoekstra.

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