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Cassandra Crifasi and her mentor, Daniel Webster
Daniel Webster, left, and Cassandra Crifasi are two of only about 30 dedicated gun policy researchers in the country.

Gun Shy

How a lack of funds translates to inadequate research on gun violence in America.

Words by Laura Wexler

It’s a simple equation. Cassandra Crifasi describes the main challenge she and her colleagues face at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research this way: “The amount of funding gun violence prevention and gun policy research receives from the federal government doesn’t match the burden of mortality and morbidity caused by gun violence in this country.”

The cause of the problem is less simple to articulate, says Daniel Webster, director of the Center. “Many people believe Centers for Disease Control is prohibited from funding gun policy research because of the Dickey Amendment,” he says. “That’s a misunderstanding.”

The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996, mandates that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The amendment was introduced after the National Rifle Association lobbied Congress in response to a CDC-funded 1993 study that reported that guns in the home were associated with increased risk of homicide in the home.

Webster explains that the lack of funding is due less to the Dickey Amendment itself than to its implications. “Clearly, at CDC 20 years ago,” he says, “they got the message that if you fund research that really angers the gun lobby, you risk substantial cuts to your budget.”

Without federal funding, there are no training grants to fund doctoral students and postdocs in gun policy research like there are in other injury prevention and public policy fields, says Crifasi. That keeps the field small—she estimates there are only 30 dedicated gun policy researchers in the country. Additionally, Crifasi says, the NIH offers no K awards (which provide significant career development funding for early-career researchers) in the field of gun violence prevention. Besides the scarcity of funding, both Crifasi and Webster say the federal government hampers the collection and distribution of data that could significantly enhance the understanding of gun violence. “There’s scant research on underground gun markets and how those underground gun markets differ in places where gun laws are relatively strict versus places with pretty lax laws,” says Webster, a fact he attributes to Congress “bottling up” data in response to pressure from the NRA.

Crifasi says the lack of data on the incidence of nonlethal shootings, a result of the FBI aggregating that data into a general category of aggravated assault, “means we only have the tip of the iceberg of gun violence in this country. We have more and more people dying and experiencing injuries from gun violence every year, and we’re still having problems getting basic research done because we can’t get the data or the funding.”

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