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When politics impede science: How gun violence research is conducted at the UW when the government won’t fund it

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Deaths from firearms are on the rise in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2017 was the third year in a row in which the number of deaths by gun increased. The total neared 40,000, the largest number in 50 years.

Despite the seriousness of this issue, little has been done by the federal government to try to learn more about the problem or how to fix it. In fact, the U.S. Congress has essentially blocked all funding for firearm research for the past 23 years.

The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996, has prevented the CDC from allocating funds to firearm research which could be used to better understand and combat the United States’ incredibly high rates of firearm-related deaths.

The text of the amendment states that “none of the funds made available [for injury prevention and control at the CDC] may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.”

Dr. Frederick P. Rivara is a pediatrician at Harborview Medical Center and co-founder of the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center (HIPRC), as well as a UW professor in pediatrics and epidemiology. Among other things, the HIPRC conducts research on firearms and gun violence within its violence prevention unit.

“The Dickey Amendment … doesn’t actually forbid firearm research, it just says that no funds from the CDC can be used to lobby for gun control,” Rivara said. “But the way that has been used by Congress is … to federally forbid the CDC from funding any firearm research.”

The Dickey Amendment came in the wake of research which suggested that gun violence should be treated as a public health issue. Gun lobbyist groups, namely the National Rifle Association (NRA), worried that this new direction would result in gun control measures, and thus, successfully lobbied for the Dickey Amendment.

Because the federal government does not currently allocate funds to firearm research, researchers in the field are forced to turn elsewhere to fund their work.

At the HIRPC, according to Rivara, funding comes from a wide variety of sources including organizations like the City of Seattle and the National Institutes of Health, as well as grants and donations from foundations. Erin Morgan, a UW doctoral student in epidemiology who does research on firearms and injury prevention, stated that some of her funding came from “smaller, grassroots groups.”

“I've had some of my research funded by donations from ‘The Grandmothers Against Gun Violence,’ who have given smaller donations periodically over the past few years,” Morgan said.

Currently, Washington state does not allocate funds to firearm research like some other states do, leaving researchers without stable funding and relying on grants and donations. In California and New Jersey, by contrast, the state legislature acted to fund the firearm research that the federal government will not.

“[Washington] could be doing a better job,” Rivara said. “I think that if states like California and New Jersey can fund firearm research programs in their states, the Washington state legislature could also do the same here for Washington.”

Researchers believe that this research is work that needs to be done in order to improve our safety and address a problem that is unique to America.

“There are nearly 40,000 people who died in 2017 from firearms,” Rivara said. “The problem is actually getting worse and not better.”

“In addition to being a large health problem, gun violence is a uniquely American epidemic in comparison with other countries with similar levels of economic development,” Morgan added.

Both Rivara and Morgan pointed out how other types of preventable injury, such as those resulting from motor vehicle accidents, have been researched to a much greater extent than firearm injury. This research, in combination with safer cars, has resulted in a dramatic decrease in motor vehicle deaths over the last 50 years.

“We know that when we invest in research and implement what we learn, we see a decrease in morbidity and mortality,” Morgan said.

In order for there to be research, though, there must be funding.

“Firearm research is necessary to understand the best way to prevent [firearm] injuries from happening, and we currently don’t have that capacity,” Rivara said.

In spite of political hurdles, firearm researchers have been able to continue their research to an extent since the implementation of the Dickey Amendment. However, in order to fully address the growing problem of firearm deaths in America, large-scale state and federal funding will be needed.

Reach reporter Emily Young at Twitter: @emilymyoung7

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