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Obama demand could end research blackout into gun violence

12:11 AM, Jan 17, 2013   |    comments
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By Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY

President Obama's demand Wednesday for research into gun violence could usher in a flood of data on the nation's 32,000 annual gun deaths after decades of an information blackout.

Scientists and policy makers say they have little scientific data about gun violence after Congress prohibited federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), from offering research grants to study anything that could be used to promote gun control.

If Americans knew more about gun violence, they would take steps to end it, says Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

"That's the last thing the Washington gun lobby wants," Glaze said. "To produce good public policy, you need good data. The gun lobby has been working overtime to blindfold public policy makers for a generation."

Federal health agencies feared Congress would pull their funding if their research offended the gun lobby, Glaze said. Obama's order eases that fear, Glaze said.

"I think you'll see the research dollars flowing again," he said.

More than 100 research scientists noted in a letter to Vice President Biden that since 1973, the NIH has awarded three research grants to study more than 4 million gun injuries while awarding 212 grants to study cholera and 129 grants to study polio. Both illnesses have been nearly eradicated in the United States.

Without federal support for research, the scientists wrote in the Jan. 10 letter from the University of Chicago Crime Lab, the nation will not have the information it needs to tackle "one of the most pressing public health problems we currently face."

The executive order signed Wednesday directs the CDC and other federal agencies to research the "causes and prevention of gun violence." The White House says such research is not prohibited by the laws. Obama called gun deaths "a public health crisis" that warrants epidemiological research.

Obama called on Congress to allocate $10 million for additional research, including investigating the relationship between violence and violent images in video games and other media, and $20 million to expand the National Violent Death Reporting System to all 50 states. The database of homicides and other violent deaths now collects data from 18 states.

The end of federal research into gun violence came in 1996 when Congress first passed a National Rifle Association-backed amendment to a CDC appropriations bill that prohibited spending federal dollars on research that could be used to "advocate or promote gun control." The bill cut $2.6 million from the CDC's National Center for Injury and Control.

Research into gun violence dropped steadily. In 2012, the CDC spent $100,000 of its $5.6 billion budget on gun injury research, a report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns said.

The National Rifle Association did not respond to a request for comment on the research order. In a written statement, the gun rights group said it would focus on securing schools, fixing the nation's mental health system and prosecuting violent criminals.

"Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation," the NRA said.

More restrictions on data came in 2003 when Congress passed legislation sponsored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., that barred the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from using n electronic database to record gun sales.

Laws that prohibit the agency for keeping an electronic database of gun sales also slow agents' ability to trace guns used in crime, said retired ATF supervisory special agent Mark Jones, now a senior law enforcement adviser for the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

"You've got ATF with extremely limited resources being forced to maintain a paper and pencil system so it has to spend its limited resources are tracing firearms," Jones said. "It's anachronistic."

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