One of Gun-sense Nation’s primary concerns that will now linger in an unfinished state is the question of funding public health research into guns. The major funding source – CDC – was shut down in the 1990s, but while private sources stepped in to try and close the gap, much important work remains undone. And analyzing both this unfinished agenda and its implications for gun violence prevention (GVP) advocacy and policy are the subjects of a commentary by Everytown’s innovation director, Ted Alcorn, that recently appeared in a JAMA issue published online.
Before I go further into Alcorn’s discussion, I need to make my own thoughts and biases about gun-violence research clear. As someone who holds a Ph.D. in Economic History and published several university monographs on same before getting into writing about guns, I would never, ever suggest or imply that serious research on any topic is anything other than a good thing. But I am occasionally dismayed by what I perceive to be a desire on the part of gun-violence researchers to present themselves as being ‘neutral’ or ‘unbiased’ when it comes to the reason they study violence caused by guns. I don’t think that a researcher should feel at all reluctant to state the obvious, which is that without guns there would be no gun violence. And if the political powers-that-be feel that 120,000 gun deaths and injuries each year are a price worth paying for a cynically-invented fiction known as 2nd-Amendment ‘rights,’ there’s no reason why any serious researcher should pay respectful homage to all that Constitutional crap. Because it’s not as if Gun-nut Nation would ever believe that any research into gun violence could be free of bias anyway since they don’t believe there’s really anything called ‘gun violence’ at all.
But let’s get back to what Ted Alcorn has to say. He and his research group looked at 2,207 scholarly articles published between 1960 and 2014, and discovered that the number of yearly articles doubled between 1984 and 1990, then doubled again between 1990 and 1994-95, then doubled again by the early 2000s, and then plateaued until they increased again noticeably in 2013-14. In other words, the volume of gun research as measured by the number of published articles has not specifically increased since the mid-’90s, except for what has recently happened, no doubt due to the fallout from Sandy Hook.
More problematic than the fact that the number of scholarly resources has been essentially unchanged for the last twenty years is that the general interest in gun violence research, as measured by the number of times that scholarly articles are cited in a general scholarly database, reached a high-watermark in 1988 and then declined more than 60 percent through 2012. This corresponds with the fact that the number of active gun-violence researchers also plateaued in the late 1990s and has not increased ever since.
The problem facing gun research is not the absence of research funding per se. It’s that the absence of research dollars tends to discourage new researchers from entering the field. And when all is said and done, advances in science have a funny way of growing because more people not only conduct that research in a particular field, but also share their research, critique each other’s research and, most of all, conduct more research.
I think the idea that manna from heaven will ever again appear for government-sponsored gun violence research is a non-starter at best, a pipe dream at worst. But I have an idea that I want to run up the flagpole about where to find money for this kind of research. There’s a little foundation out there which happens to be sitting on $400 million bucks. They refer to what they do as ‘life-changing work.’ What could be more life-changing than saving the lives of 120,000 Americans each year who are killed and injured by guns? The outfit is run by Donna Shalala who gave out plenty of gun-violence research money when she headed HHS from 1993 to 2001. Shouldn’t Gun-sense Nation give her a call?