Democrats aim to double the federal government’s portfolio of firearm violence research next year and get that research into the hands of key policymakers.
The fiscal 2022 budget President Joe Biden proposed to Congress Friday would increase to $50 million federal funds going to firearm violence research each year. That spending target matches what congressional Democrats pushed for in fiscal 2021, but it was cut to $25 million in the final agreement with Republicans.
Democrats say the increase should be coupled with a direction to the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that this research must be aimed at improving anti-violence programs and helping policymakers reduce gun crimes — not simply circulated among academics.
“Just doing the research isn’t good enough,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “They actually then have to tell people and the people they have to tell aren’t the same people that are normally on their email list.”
“These are mayors that are deciding how to spend money to try to reduce this upsurge in gun violence,” he said. “The NIH research could be really helpful to them, but mayor’s are not normally on the receiving end of NIH.”
The move for more money and better data reflects Congress’ recent shift away from its unwillingness to fund NIH and other federal agencies’ research into gun violence. That long-standing policy explicitly kept research agencies from advocating for gun control and in practice dried up funds to study why almost 40,000 people in the U.S. die from firearm-related injuries each year, more than half of them from suicide.
Murphy, a member of the Senate Appropriations panel responsible for the bulk of federal health funding, has been an advocate for overhauling the nation’s gun laws since 20 schoolchildren were murdered in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
Advocates for stricter federal gun laws have struggled to pass comprehensive changes in Congress. Most anti-violence programs are run by states or cities.
One step toward improving those programs, advocates say, is better data on why so many Americans are killed each year by guns.
Researchers who study gun violence say Murphy’s criticism of the NIH is fair. The agency’s work is often basic research destined for scientific journals that are largely read by other researchers. But those researchers spent more than a decade working on slim budgets because of the prohibitions on federal funds for their work, said Andrew Morrall, a researcher at the public policy nonprofit RAND.
“The people who’ve been doing this for decades are super-passionate and super-committed,” said Morrall, who received an almost $350,000 grant from NIH in 2020 to study firearm policy. “They’re invested in getting their work out.”
The research field of gun violence shrank during the some two decades when the federal government was putting little money into it, said Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis. In the early 2000s there were about 15 scientists in the U.S. with careers committed to studying violence, he said.
That left a group of committed researchers — Wintemute has personally donated more than $2 million to UC Davis to keep the program afloat — who regularly work to translate their work for a broad audience.
“We are scientists who understand that our job is not done when the science is,” Wintemute said.
The field also needs funding to train new researchers if the government is going to inject more money into it, he added.
Francis Collins, director of NIH, told lawmakers Wednesday he’s “enthusiastic about expanding our approach” to examining firearm suicides and the availability of guns to people who might misuse them.
Collins told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that doubling the funds for firearms research would let the NIH “take an approach that is more holistic” and look broadly at gun safety and violence intervention.
Everytown for Gun Safety advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures. Michael Bloomberg is the majority owner of Bloomberg Government’s parent company and serves as a member of Everytown’s advisory board.
To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org