Commentary: NRA prevents funding for studies on gun violence

The Sacramento BeeAugust 10, 2012 

There was nothing unusual about the University of Colorado's grant to its once-promising student, James E. Holmes.

If Holmes weren't accused of killing a dozen people and wounding 58, we'd never know that he received $21,600 for living costs while he pursued his doctorate in neuroscience. Nor was there anything odd about how the university paid for the stipend. The money came from an annual grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health.

But if the National Institutes of Health had granted money to a researcher delving into the reasons for mass shootings, there might have been trouble. In an Orwellian use of power politics, the gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association has in many instances muzzled federal agencies' ability to fund basic research into gun violence.

"This is a deliberate effort to keep evidence from being collected," said Dr. Garen Wintemute, a UC Davis Medical School professor and one of the few researchers in the nation who focuses on guns and gun violence. "It is one more way to prevent policy reform. It's a brilliant strategy."

Wintemute has been researching gun violence for three decades, beginning when he was a young emergency room physician treating gunshot victims. Over the years, he has published numerous studies related to guns. But private grants have funded most of that work since 1996, the year the National Rifle Association lobbied to restrict funding for research into gun violence.

The initial focus was on research funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NRA lobbyist Chet Walker told a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time that CDC-funded research was being used to promote gun control legislation, and that the CDC ought to stick "to fighting infectious disease and illness."

Congress since has been inserting language into the CDC's budgets barring grant money from being used for "any proposed, pending, or future requirement or restriction on any legal consumer product, including its sale or marketing, including but not limited to the advocacy or promotion of gun control."

"None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control," says the rider placed on the CDC's budget, and, as of this year, added to the National Institutes of Health's budget.

The CDC and NIH award billions in grants. They fund research into cancer, brain injury, tobacco use, obesity, AIDS, abortion, hearing loss, allergies, infectious diseases, back pain and virtually everything else related to human health. But gun violence is the one area that carries that specific language. The effect has been to limit federal funding into research that could be used to shape policy.

The National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 2004 raising basic questions: Should there be restrictions on who can possess and carry firearms? Should regulations differ for different types of firearms? Should gun purchases be delayed? Should there be restrictions on the number or types of firearms people can buy?

But the report noted "answers to some of the most pressing questions cannot be addressed with existing data and research methods, however well designed."

"If policymakers are to have a solid empirical and research base for decisions about firearms and violence, the federal government needs to support a systematic program of data collection and research that specifically addresses that issue," the report said.

The National Institute of Justice had filled the void. But in recent years, even that funding has declined, said Charles F. Wellford, a University of Maryland professor of criminology who headed the panel that produced the National Academy of Sciences report.

"Funding is sporadic and quite limited," Wellford said.

I sent an email to an NRA lobbyist asking about the organization's hand in limiting research funding, and received the NRA's stock answer to press inquiries since the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo.

"NRA is not doing interviews," spokeswoman Stephanie Samford wrote. "We believe that now is the time for families to grieve and for the community to heal. There will be an appropriate time down the road to engage in political and policy discussions."

How very sensitive and thoughtful – and hypocritical. The NRA would prefer to discuss the policy and politics of guns on its terms, as it will this fall.

On the day that Holmes was taken into custody, the NRA filed its latest campaign finance disclosure, showing it has $8.4 million ready for the November election. That helps explain its clout in Congress over federal research funding.

Rational people might wonder why Holmes or any civilian would need an AR-15 assault rifle. They might question how Holmes could outfit himself in military-style body armor, acquire a 100-round magazine, and amass 6,000 bullets without anyone in authority noticing.

People might wonder why anyone would kill 12 people in a movie theater, or kill six people and gravely wound a congresswoman outside a Safeway in Tucson, or shoot to death 32 people at a university in Virginia.

They might wonder why 30,000 people die from gun-related violence each year, clearly enough to constitute a health menace worthy of research.

Politics often comes down to a risk calculation. There aren't many lawmakers willing to pick a fight with the NRA over research. But, of course, the issue goes beyond research.

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