How has the United States confronted major public health threats like AIDS, automobile deaths and injuries, and smoking-related deaths and illnesses? The CDC (Center for Disease Control) has conducted research to determine the underlying causes, collected data, and evaluated strategies to address the problems. As a result, deaths, injury, and illness from these threats have been dramatically reduced.
In order to make any substantial changes in the gun violence that plagues our country, we must: recognize it as a public health crisis; agree that the yearly 30,000 plus deaths and many more injuries related to gun violence are unacceptable and preventable; allow the CDC to proceed as it has with our other health crises.
The CDC has not played its usual role in the gun violence epidemic that plagues our country because the kind of research needed to confront the issue has been hampered by The Dickey Amendment. Passed in 1996, this rider attached to a federal spending bill, mandated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the CDC may be used to advocate or promote research or gathering any data on gun-related injuries and deaths.” After Sandy Hook, President Obama instructed the CDC to resume research into gun violence, but Congress has not allotted a single dollar for research into gun violence.
Why is research so important? Public health research can help identify the kind of programs, attitudes, and public policies that can deal with the problems of gun violence, much the way we have dealt with other national health crises. Vehicle and smoking- related deaths and injuries, HIV occurrence and death, have all diminished dramatically—thanks in large part to public policy and education developed from extensive research conducted by public health agencies like the CDC . In 2013, Boston University of Public Health did conduct research into gun ownership and its consequences. The report noted some interesting correlations between guns and violence that could be a beginning to a sane national conversation:
(1) Women in states with higher rates of gun ownership are at greater risk of being killed by people they know than those in states where a smaller percentage of people own guns. The study found that nearly 9 in 10 femicides are committed by non-strangers, and 40 percent of the variance in femicide is explained by state-level firearm ownership rates alone. http://www.bu.edu/sph/2016/01/26/link-between-gun-ownership-rates-and-murders-of-women/
(2) There is a strong correlation of household gun ownership and firearm-related homicide rates level. This relationship is specific to homicides committed by offenders who are known to the victim. http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301409
(3) There is a strong link between gun ownership and fire-arm related suicide rates. http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303182
(4) There is a strong correlation between states that have instituted universal background checks and lower rates of firearm-related homicides. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)01026-0/abstract
If our legislators would allow and fund similar research at the national level, we could do more than pray and hold vigils for victims of gun violence. We might be able in 10 years to look back and see that we have reduced firearm-related homicides and violence just as we have reduced automobile, smoking, and HIV deaths. We will have decided that the gun violence epidemic is not acceptable. That it is preventable.