President Obama may have ended the 17-year ban on gun violence research at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but even if Congress restores research funds, experts say the damage runs deeper than funding cuts.
Since the 1996 ban, many of the leading researchers of the 1980s and 1990s have moved on to other specialties, and some said they've even discouraged students from specializing in gun violence research because the work doesn't pay. The ban also helped make gun-related questions controversial even for studies not funded by the government, and it will take years to restore available data to what it once was.
"Good research was being done by Art [Kellermann] and by us and by others on what the risk factors were for firearm violence, and how it might be prevented and so forth," said Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician and leader on gun violence research at the University of California at Davis. "I won't say it halted, but it decreased substantially in scale."
The CDC conducted gun violence research in the 1980s and 1990s, but it abruptly ended in 1996 when the National Rifle Association lobbied Congress to cut the CDC's budget the exact amount it had allocated to gun violence research.
"It's worth pointing out that the language never specifically forbade the CDC from conducting the research," Wintemute said.
The 1997 appropriations bill stated, "None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control." Congress also threatened more funding cuts if the gun research continued.
"The message was really clear," Wintemute said.
In 2003, the 1997 bill language was updated to include the words "in whole or in part," which expanded the ban. Then, in 2012, the appropriations bill expanded the restriction to all Health and Human Services agencies.
Then, came the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza opened fire and killed 20 students and six adults. A month later, Obama unveiled a sweeping plan to curb gun violence, but he still needed Congress to approve the research dollars.
Researchers Moved On
When the research was banned, Dr. Arther Kellermann had been working on CDC-funded research on whether home gun possession had potentially protective or hazardous effects on health. Nonprofit organizations helped fund the remainder of the project, but as the years went on, fewer and fewer nonprofits stepped up.
"I did not realize when I wrote an editorial in 1997 that the prohibition would continue for 17 years," Kellermann said, referring to his American Journal of Public Health piece about the NRA's response to gun research and its parallels to the tobacco industry's response to research linking cigarettes to cancer.
Like many gun violence researchers, Kellermann tried to stay in his field, but after a decade of waiting for the ban to lift, he had to find a different specialty. He now works on policy analysis at the Rand Corp.
Kellermann said he's watched as bumper stickers and slogans replaced statistics and facts over the past two decades. In the last week, a YouTube video of a 15-year-old Maryland girl's pro-gun speech attracted more than 2.3 million views. She cited statistics, but it's not clear where they came from.