Every year, sepsis and gun violence kill a similar number of Americans, according to the American Psychological Association. Yet, between 2004 and 2015, gun violence research received only 0.7% of the same funding as sepsis research.
The reason researchers say why? Politics and concerns that information would allow fact-based research to inject itself into the conversation.
The gun legislation President Joe Biden signed into law on Saturday is the most sweeping gun legislation to pass through Congress in nearly three decades. It expands background checks, tightens purchasing laws, and sets aside millions so states can fund intervention programs, strengthen red flag laws, and give mental health support.
“Maybe we can move a little bit more forward on these policies with data behind them and bipartisan support now that we’ve taken this first step,” said Mike Anestis, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University.
For years, Anestis has been doing what he can with available resources. The New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center was established in 2018 with a $2 million grant from the state. It is one of only three state-funded gun research institutions in the country, as it receives an additional $1 million in state funding each year.
By and large, however, that is and has been rare since the mid-1990s.
In 1996, Congress passed what is known as the Dickey Amendment as part of a larger omnibus bill. The amendment prohibited using federal funds to “advocate or promote gun control.”
At the time, that meant research, as well.
The passage of the NRA-backed Dickey Amendment took $2.6 million in annual Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding for firearm research and turned it into $100,000 per year.
It meant studies at the time were far limited in reach and scope as researchers tried to scrape together what they could from minor grants and university support. Anestis says it also sent a clear message to those doing this work.
“It’s not just the lack of number of studies that are out there or the lack of sheer dollars that are out there, we haven’t been pulling new minds in this to think about it,” said Anestis. “So, we don’t even know what we could have known in the past because those folks who would’ve thought about these questions differently went in an entirely different direction with their career.”
After the 2018 Parkland, Fla. school shooting, things changed. In the fiscal year 2020, the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies appropriations bill included $25 million for gun violence research, split evenly between the CDC and the National Institutes of Health as funding was made available again. Still, it remains below what some had hoped.
When the bill was negotiated, Democrats had requested $50 million for firearm research as it is disproportionate in funding compared to the amount of funding for other deadly illnesses and diseases.
According to the National Institutes of Health budget data, it has a $41.7 billion annual research budget. That money is used to fund hundreds of research topics each year.
For example, in 2020, the NIH allotted $7.362 billion to cancer research, $3.082 billion to HIV/AIDS research, and $3.059 billion to Alzheimer’s research. That same year, according to data from the CDC, cancer was responsible for 602,350 deaths, HIV/AIDS was responsible for 18,489 deaths, and Alzheimer’s was responsible for 134,242 deaths.
In each of those cases, the funding for research far outweighed the number of deaths, but not in the case of gun violence deaths and firearm research funding.
2020 saw the highest number of gun violence deaths in American history as, according to the CDC, 45,222 lives were taken, but that year, the NIH only dedicated $19 million in firearm research funding.
As Anestis alluded to, the lack of funding affects not only what research is being done, but also who is doing that research.
“So, it’s not just talking about the money available for research, it’s talking about the money available to pay the minds to do the research,” he said. “We need to create a viable career path for people to be able to do this and sustain their career doing this. Otherwise, they’ll go in different directions the same way anybody does.”