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With new federal funding, scientists rebuild the field of gun violence research

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

From coronavirus to prescription drugs to cars, the federal government studies what impacts the health and safety of Americans. But since 1996, efforts to understand gun violence have received almost no funding from Washington. That's due to the NRA-backed Dickey Amendment. It banned the Centers for Disease Control from using money to, quote, "advocate or promote gun control," unquote. But after 20 years without funding, the government has started putting money into gun violence research again. So how should researchers rebuild this field? To talk with us about that, Dr. Patrick Carter, the co-director of the University of Michigan's Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PATRICK CARTER: Thanks so much for having me.

SUMMERS: To start, can you just give us a sense of how much of a roadblock the Dickey Amendment has been to your field of research?

CARTER: It fundamentally limited the type of progress we could make. When you think about the field of motor vehicle crash injury prevention, we saw the highest number of motor vehicle crash deaths in this country in the mid-1950s. In the subsequent 50 years, we've been able to reduce the number of people who die and or injured in car crashes every year by 70%. And we did that through the application of rigorous research methods and funding by the federal government. And we can do the same thing with firearms. We just haven't been able to until most recently.

SUMMERS: OK. So as I hear you compare this to the way we think about and the way the government studies car accidents, it strikes me that when government agencies study that, they're not weighing in and saying that cars are good or cars are bad. And so I guess my question is the research that you're talking about, research into gun violence, it doesn't take a pro-gun or anti-gun stance, right?

CARTER: That's correct. So we don't tell people they shouldn't own pools. We talk to them about how to own pools safely and keep their children from drowning in pools. And it's the same situation with firearms. We don't take a stance on whether or not people should own firearms. It's really about how do we decrease the number of people who are dying? And some of that is around, you know, how do people own and operate firearms safely? And there are - there is probably a population of people who shouldn't own firearms because they're at high risk, and that population should be identified. And we've seen most recently with the federal government this move to move red flag laws or ERPO laws forward. And that's one mechanism for identifying people who are at risk to harm themselves or to harm somebody else. And I think when we approach it in this way, where we don't say it's good or it's bad, we talk about how to reduce injury and death, most people can get around the idea that we want less people across the country dying from firearms.

SUMMERS: So federal money is just starting to flow in to fund new gun violence research. But in the years where there was no funding, so many people in the U.S. have either died or been injured or in some way had their lives touched by gun violence. So I guess I just want to ask, is this funding enough given the scope of the problem?

CARTER: The money that we're seeing is a really good start, but it's not commensurate with the burden of disease yet. So when you think about the number of people that die every year in the United States, over 45,000 from firearm fatalities, and you compare that to other leading causes of death, and we think about motor vehicle crash injury and cancer and HIV, the funding that's available to study the problem of firearm injury is nowhere near the level that we see of a federal investment for those other issues.

SUMMERS: To your mind, as somebody who has been studying these issues for 15-plus years, what sorts of questions are most urgent for you to answer right now?

CARTER: There's lots of questions to answer, and I think there's no shortage of research that's needed, everything from understanding the current trends that we're seeing in firearm death and injury to uncovering more about the risks and protective factors that are unique to firearm suicides and firearm homicides, to the types of programs and policies and solutions that we need across the board. There's just a lot of work to be done.

SUMMERS: Dr. Patrick Carter, co-director of the University of Michigan's Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, thank you so much.

CARTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Kai McNamee
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.