Scientists have been collecting data on car crash deaths and casualties for decades. Studies of the dangers of tobacco number in the many hundreds. But the US government has never funded a research center to study gun violence. Yesterday, the California legislature approved a budget allocating $5 million to establish the California Firearm Violence Research Center. This information really wants to be free.
What scientists don’t know about the public health impact of guns could fill an armory. Its a disgrace, says Michael Siegel, an epidemiologist and member of the Violence Prevention Research Unit at Boston University. Gun violence is one of the top public health problems in the nation. If youre in an urban area and African American, its probably the number one public health problem youre going to face.” But for some states, no one has even the most basic descriptive data, like how many people own guns. Without that kind of essential information, no one can evaluate policies.
Even if you had the data, the lack of funding means few researchers are qualified to analyze it. We have to have a conversation with young people about whether or not they can build a career in this area, says Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Im absolutely confident that we lost a generation of researchers because we havent had the money.
The California Firearm Violence Research Center will have funding, train a new crop of researchers, and get one of the best gun violence data sets out there. Over the last fifteen years, national rates of firearm violence have remained unchanged. says Garen Wintemute, a physician and the director of the Violence Prevention Research Unit at UC Davis. But in that time period, firearm violence in California has decreased by about 20percent. Wintemute, who spearheaded the proposal to create the center with Senator Lois Wolk, a Democrat who represents Davis, hopes that’ll be one of the things the new team can figure out.
Ideally, the center will benefit from unhindered access to the state’s gun violence data, and be able to examine the ways it has changed over time as policies shifted—which should make for some robust research.Wintemute wants to see the center dive into everything from assessing policy effectiveness toevaluating whether there’s a connection between gun violence and alcohol abuse.
Understanding what has gone well or badly in California will apply to the rest of the United States, but it obviously won’t be enough to solve America’s gun problem. Federal funding drives the public health research agenda, and $5million is barely a pellet of birdshot compared the ammunition the Feds deploy on other scientific problems.Still, Wolk thinks bringing any clarity to the conversation is a step in the right direction. Until the government comes to their senses, the problem is so large and serious that everyone should have a shared policy conversation, she says. Research will help us move in a direction that establishes common ground. This isnt about whether the Second Amendment is good or not. Good science and access to information ought to be principles any side of the gun issue can agree on.