On Wednesday morning, hours before news broke about the horrific mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, a group of concerned doctors delivered a petition to Congress that calls on lawmakers to lift the ban on federally funded research on gun violence.
“It’s disappointing to me that we’ve made little progress in the past 20 years in finding solutions to gun violence,” said Dr. Nina Agrawal, a pediatrician in the South Bronx, at a press conference Wednesday. “In my career, I’ve seen children’s lives saved from measles, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, motor vehicle accidents … because of federal scientific data and research. It’s frustrating that the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is not permitted to do the same type of research for gun violence.”
Signed by more than 2,000 physicians from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the petition was initiated led by Doctors for America. Joining the effort were eight other medical associations: the Doctors Council, the American Medical Women’s Association, the National Physicians Alliance, the American College of Preventive Medicine, the Committee of Interns and Residents, Physicians for the Prevention of Gun Violence, the American Medical Student Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Gun violence is a public health problem that kills 90 Americans a day,” said Dr. Alice Chen, executive director of Doctors for America, in a released statement. “Physicians believe it’s time to lift this effective ban and fund the research needed to save lives. We urge Congress to put patients over politics to help find solutions to our nation’s gun violence crisis.”
A change of heart
The legislation that has hampered researchers’ efforts to study the causes — and possible solutions — to gun violence is the so-called Dickey Amendment, which was passed in 1996 under pressure from the National Rifle Association (NRA). It cut off CDC funding for gun violence research, a restriction that Congress extended to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2011.
But even the author of the initial amendment, former Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Arkansas, who is a life member of the NRA, has said that the legislation was a mistake.
“Recently, some have observed that no policies can reduce firearm fatalities, but that’s not quite true,” he wrote in a 2012 opinion piece for the Washington Post. “Research-based observations are available. Childproof locks, safe-storage devices and waiting periods save lives.”
“But it’s vital,” he added, “to understand why we know more and spend so much more on preventing traffic fatalities than on preventing gun violence, even though firearm deaths (31,347 in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available) approximate the number of motor vehicle deaths (32,885 in 2010).”
As I’ve reported here before, that gap between motor vehicle deaths and firearm deaths has narrowed considerably in recent years — and with good reason: research. For, as Doctors for America points out, the federal government spends about $240 million a year on traffic safety — efforts that are credited with saving about 360,000 lives since 1970.
A huge and tragic toll
Gun violence exacts not only tragic personal tolls on individuals and their families, it also places a huge economic burden on the country. In an investigation published earlier this year, reporters for Mother Jones estimated that gun violence costs the U.S. economy approximately $229 billion a year, or $700 per American per year.
That’s more than the annual estimated costs associated with the obesity epidemic ($224 billion per year) and only slightly less than what is spent annually for Medicaid ($251 billion per year), the reporters pointed out.
As Dickey pointed out in his op-ed for the Washington Post, “The same evidence-based approach that is saving millions of lives from motor-vehicle crashes, as well as from smoking, cancer and HIV/AIDS, can help reduce the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence.”
“Most politicians fear talking about guns almost as much as they would be confronted by one, but these fears are senseless,” he added. “We must learn what we can do to save lives. It is like the answer to the question ‘When is the best time to plant a tree?’ The best time to start was 20 years ago: the second-best time is now.”