Gun Violence Is A Public Health Issue

5:13 minutes

a water tower that says 'uvalde'
Credit: Shutterstock

As illustrated by the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas this week, gun violence is a pervasive issue in the United States. The entire Science Friday team extends our condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy. 

One reason gun violence is so difficult to understand is that for a long time, there was a federal freeze on funding gun-violence research. That was due to the “Dickey Amendment” which was instated in 1996. This rule barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds to fund research into gun violence, with the reasoning that research into this area would “advocate or promote gun control.”

The 2020 federal omnibus spending bill reinstated funding for this research for the first time in more than 20 years, opening up research into gun violence. This comes during a time where healthcare professionals, including pediatricians and epidemiologists, have elevated their voices to say that gun violence is a public health issue. Firearm-related injury is now the leading cause of death of children and adolescents in the United States. 

Joining guest host John Dankosky to discuss gun violence as a public health issue is Roxanne Khamsi, science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

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Segment Guests

Roxanne Khamsi

Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky, in for Ira Flatow. As usual this week, we’re going to bring you a full range of science stories that we hope will inform you, enlighten you, and entertain you. But it’s been hard to think about anything this week except for the mass shooting in Texas. All of us at Science Friday are thinking about those affected by this tragedy, and we’re sending love to our friends at Texas Public Radio and the statewide Texas newsroom who’ve been serving their listeners during this terrible week.

Gun violence is one of the nation’s biggest public health problems. The raw numbers are staggering. According to CDC data released earlier this month, more than 45,000 people died in America in 2020 from gun-related causes. And guns have become the leading cause of death for children aged one to 19.

But the impact that guns have on our health is difficult to understand because for a long time, there was a federal freeze on funding gun violence research. Joining me to talk about the state of research on gun violence in the US is my guest. Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec. Welcome back to Science Friday, Roxanne.


JOHN DANKOSKY: One thing that’s been really noticeable over the last few years, and certainly throughout this past week, is an increased number of health care professionals getting pretty vocal about gun violence as a public health issue. What can you tell us about that?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, as you mentioned, there was this recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine outlining how gun deaths have surpassed motor vehicle deaths. And I think that that is key to showing that scientists and doctors are looking at the data and getting involved in the conversation. You might recall that back in 2018, in fact, the National Rifle Association had sent out a tweet saying that someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. And in response, there was a hashtag that emerged from pediatricians and emergency doctors saying, this is our lane. And since then, they’ve been quite vocal about saying, we want to be involved in the research.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So let’s get into the research on this and how the Dickey Amendment, as it’s called, made things pretty complicated back in the 1990s. What can you tell us about this rule?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Sure. The story kind of began in 1993, again, with this journal, the New England Journal of Medicine, where scientists and researchers had published an influential paper funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that study found that keeping a gun in the home was actually really increasing the rate and risk of homicide rather than protecting people, on average.

And so the National Rifle Association again spoke up and said, we don’t like that the CDC is funding this kind of research, and we want to call for the elimination of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention. And so, as a result, Congress included an amendment brought forward by Jay Dickey, a Republican Congressman from Arkansas, that said the CDC and government shouldn’t use funds to quote, “advocate or promote gun control.” And then there was a twist a few years ago that undid some of that blocking of federal funding for gun violence research.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So the Dickey Amendment has largely been done away with. Does that mean that more gun violence research has been able to be funded by the federal government?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: What happened was in 2018, Congress clarified that the federal dollars for advocacy didn’t include research. And the next year, it allocated $25 million to the National Institutes of Health and the CDC, but $25 million split between two institutions doesn’t actually end up being that much money. They funded 16 studies, which I could tell you about. But you know, I think other organizations are saying we need to fund even more research.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, I mean, one of the disconnects here is the size of the problem that we outlined with the raw numbers and the amount of funding it gets. Roxanne, there are so many diseases that kill a relatively small number of people that are funded far more than gun research.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yes. In fact, it’s calculated that between 2009 and 2018, for every life lost to gun violence, there was only $46 of federal funding for gun violence research, which is nothing.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So how far does the research need to go? What are people calling for now?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So there’s been a statement by the Association for Prevention, Teaching, and Research saying we need $35 million, at least, for federal funding for gun violence research. And ultimately, we need $100 million for research. And I think the point is that the more scientists look at this problem, the more researchers and pediatricians and emergency physicians look at this problem and provide real data, we’ll be able to have a logical way out of this problem that we’re all really struggling with, to say, how do we stop this from happening?

That being said, I think we’re already living in an experiment, because the US has such a different rate of gun violence than other countries. So one could argue that the data is a little bit already there. So I’ll let listeners kind of decide what they think about how much more research we need.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s all the time we have. Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec. It’s always great to have you on the show, Roxanne. Thanks so much for being here.


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About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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