I’m not exactly sure why The Washington Post would run a big story today on the government’s continued failure to fund gun research through the CDC, considering that when it comes to health matters the new Congress has much more important things to do like getting rid of the ACA. Nevertheless, the story does make the point that gun violence is the least-researched of all major causes of death, and had it received research funding commensurate with the number of gun deaths each year, the total research dollars that might have been spent over the last decade would be $1.4 billion or more.
The Post’s story is hardly the first time that the funding deficit for gun research has been mentioned and it won’t be the last. This story was prompted by a brief JAMA article in which two researchers calculated a predictive figure for gun violence research (the $1.4 billion quoted above) and compared it to research funding for other leading causes of mortality and, no surprise, the gun violence funding lagged far behind.
The number of gun deaths and the whole notion of gun violence has been attacked by Gun-nut Nation in two different ways. First they argue that the number is wholly out of wack because two-thirds of gun mortality consists of suicides and this behavior is prompted by mental illness, it has nothing to do with guns at all. Let’s end that one right now: the World Health Organization defines ‘violence’ as an attempt to injure yourself or someone else. Get it? If you don’t get it, you can stop reading right now.
The other argument that gun-nut Nation uses to disparage the idea that gun violence should be studied as a medical problem is the claim that over the last several decades, coincident with the same time-period during which the Dickey Amendment prohibited gun research, in fact mortality from guns has been going down. The total number of gun deaths today, including suicides, is roughly half what it was in 1994. So why spend taxpayer money on researching something which seems to be solving itself?
The fact is (there’s that messy word again) that total gun deaths are about half of what they were twenty years ago, except that 95% of that decrease occurred between 1994 and 1999. Since 2000 the annual number of gun deaths has stayed more or less the same, and if current numbers can be trusted, gun deaths have started climbing again. Will the numbers climb back up to levels recorded in the mid-90’s? God only hopes not, but to say that gun violence continues to go down is simply a big, fat lie.
But there’s one more aspect of gun violence which the authors of the JAMA article didn’t take into account, and they didn’t deal with it because they are physicians which means that every injury is a medical event that must be treated as a risk to health. Except that at least one-third of all fatal gun injuries, and this holds true for no other type of injury that causes death, also happen to be criminal events. And it is the criminal nature of more than 11,000 gun homicides and 65,000+ gun assaults each year which helps Gun-nut Nation support the idea that gun violence shouldn’t be the subject of medical research at all.
Because, so the theory goes, if someone picks up a gun and intends to use it to harm someone else, then that someone has made a conscious decision to commit a criminal act. And we don’t need no stinkin’ research to figure out what to do with all those gang-bangers in the ‘hood. Just lock ‘em up, throw away the key and that’s the end of that.
Now for those of us who understand that crime is a complicated, multifactorial phenomenon that can’t simply be reduced to a quick and easy solution, that’s fine. But a lot of people out there would disagree. And many of those folks own guns and support the NRA.