After the massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the public debate, once again, is focused on gun control. Little is known about the man who was apparently the shooter, but what is known has left many bewildered. A 26 year old, white man who was discharged from the United States Air Force for misconduct. The question: "What made this young man commit such violent act?" underlies many of the reports of the tragedy.
“This isn't a guns situation,” President Trump said. “This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event.”
Yes, there is agreement that the perpetrator had mental health issues. But that doesn’t come close to explaining what’s at the root of America’s epidemic of gun violence. In the United States, we have had 307 mass shootings in this year alone; 93 people on average are killed by gun shots daily; and some 1,300 children and teens are victims of firearms annually.
The President and Congress must consider how scarce the data are for the phenomenon of mass shootings in our country. Though gun violence is among the leading causes of death due to injury in the United States, it is also the least researched. The national discourse has yet to ask the basic questions we ask in public health: “who" "what" "when" and “where”. These questions that have served public health well in discerning patterns that lead to interventions. How did this happen?
The answer is a sobering window on how facts can be mistaken for politics. For the last 20 years – a period during which America has seen a significant increase in deadly shootings – Congress has denied the federal government of critical funding to research the underlying causes of gun violence.
Data collection on firearms used to be the job of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Two decades ago, for example, CDC studies found that homes with guns were three times more likely to have homicides and five times more likely to have suicides than homes without them.
But the gun lobby waged a successful campaign in 1996 and pressured politicians to restrict funding for gun violence research by the CDC. Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, mandating that no funds for studies on injury prevention could be “used to advocate or promote gun control,” effectively imposing a ban on health research around the use of firearms.
In the years since the amendment, CDC funding for gun injury prevention has fallen 96 percent, and no in depth study on the subject has been conducted since 2001. While the CDC does keep a national surveillance database on firearm injuries and fatalities, the system lacks crucial information for states with high gun ownership, including Texas, West Virginia and Tennessee.
We know, or at least we should know, that better data leads to better government. Think of the impact of research on motor vehicles. After seeing a dangerous rise in car accidents and deaths about fifty years ago, the government dedicated funding to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Researchers studied everything from the type of car, to the age and gender of drivers, to alcohol-related accidents and seat belts – by 2009, traffic fatalities reached a record low.
Research on firearms can help save lives. An epidemiological take on this issue will produce critical data and lead to evidence-based policies that can help shape behaviors. Beyond the polarized gun control debate, people deserve more information about the main predictors of gun violence for victims and perpetrators. Even the architect of the Dicky Amendment, the late Arkansas Congressman Jay Dicky, later advocated for the prohibition to be ended. In a Washington Post op-ed two years ago, he wrote, “federal funding for research into gun-violence prevention should be dramatically increased.”
Public health has a crucial role to play. We want to help stop epidemics and prevent people from dying early. Gun violence deaths are preventable, but public health policy and research is essential; without Congressional action, our hands are tied.
Lawmakers must set aside partisan politics and support the need for basic facts on gun violence. Otherwise, America will keep mourning innocent people.