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Money for firearms research lacking, Harvard professor tells scientists

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An average of about 100 people nationwide die every day from gun injuries, but funding for firearms research is virtually nonexistent, a Harvard University professor said Friday.

David Hemenway, who teaches at Harvard’s School of Public Health, described a grim research landscape during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

“It’s very, very hard to get data, and there’s virtually no funding for research,” Hemenway said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had once set aside $2.6 million annually to study firearm injuries, but that was wiped out in the 1990s under pressure from the gun lobby and congressional Republicans, Hemenway said.


He said the government agency isn’t prohibited from paying for firearms research, but refuses to do so because it fears Congress would retaliate with budget cuts. CDC grants for injury research also stipulate that no money be used to promote gun control, Hemenway said.

“They are correctly quite fearful because they know they would be brought up before Congress and berated and their funding will be cut if they ever fund firearms research,” Hemenway said.

The National Institutes of Health has paid for firearms research, but in small amounts, he said.

Hemenway cited a study that found over 40 years, the NIH made 486 research awards to study cholera, rabies, polio, and diphtheria. During that period, 2,000 people died from those diseases.

Over the same time span, the study found 4 million people suffered gunshot wounds, and the NIH made three awards for firearms research, he said.

The NIH said it has been restricted since 2012 from funding projects that promote gun control. But between 2013 and last month, the agency said it sponsored three funding opportunities for research related to firearm violence, resulting in money for 19 projects.

The CDC didn’t respond Friday to a request for comment.


The provision that produced the chilling effect on firearms research is tied to former Arkansas Representative Jay Dickey, who inserted language into a 1996 spending bill that has been interpreted as banning the CDC from paying for such projects, according to a 2016 article in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine.

In 2015, Dickey urged Congress to reverse course, arguing that his actions were aimed at eliminating federal funding for gun control advocacy and were never intended to limit scientific research, the article said.

University of Pennsylvania professor Susan B. Sorenson said the lack of funding is steering away younger researchers.

“We don’t have lots of younger people coming in because there’s not the funding stream to support the work,” she said.

The National Institute of Justice, a government agency, and some private foundations pay for studies, said Hemenway.

One group in California, he said, invested $50 million for research, advocacy, and data collection and now that state has the country’s strongest gun laws.

Northeastern University professor Matthew Miller said he relies on private foundations but the funds aren’t enough.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com.