Back in the mid-1990s, lawmakers took bold action on gun violence: They eviscerated federal funding to study it. A 1996 appropriations bill passed by the Republican Congress banned the use of any CDC funds to “advocate or promote gun control,” and soon the National Institutes of Health and other agencies were subjected to similar bans. While the language doesn’t expressly prohibit all gun-violence research, the CDC and other agencies have, understandably, decided to play it safe, lest they risk the ire of the bill’s architects and supporters. If you’re an ostensibly apolitical public-health civil servant or researcher, the last thing you want is to be the subject of a congressional “investigation” simply for doing your job.
Unsurprisingly, then, these guidelines have had a profound chilling effect on research into one of the leading causes of death in the United States. There’s a lot we don’t know about the hows and whys of gun deaths — not just homicides, but suicides, which account for about half of all gun deaths — that we would if lawmakers hadn’t crippled federal funding for this vital area of scientific inquiry.
Today, a research letter published in JAMA by David E. Stark, a physician at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, and Nigam H. Shah, a researcher at Stanford University, offers some of the clearest evidence yet on just how devastating the Republican approach to gun-violence research has been. Stark and Shah decided to dig up data on the mortality rates of the leading causes of death in the U.S., and then compared each cause of death to how much research funding has been spent on it and how many publications were produced as a result.
This led them to produce a couple of extremely depressing graphs:
As you can see, gun violence is a total outlier — nothing kills as many people and gets anywhere near so little research attention. In all likelihood, there’s a dire human toll lurking beneath these dry numbers: Given how deadly guns are, two decades of neglected research must have translated into many lives unnecessarily lost.
This particular battle in the broader Republican war on science was an overwhelming, grisly success.