A New Era of Gun Violence Research

APril 1, 2021

Photo by Cory Doctorow licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

2020 was a record-breaking year in the U.S. for both gun sales and gun deaths. Researchers, helped by the first new congressional funding for gun violence studies in more than 20 years, are racing for solutions.

Listen to the full episode below, read the transcript or scroll down for more information.

If you want more deep dives into health policy research, check out our Research Corner and subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Content warning: This episode includes descriptions of suicidal ideations. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. Both lines are free and open 24/7.

The Problem: As Gun Violence Surges, Research Lags

Recent mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder have put guns back in the headlines. But the U.S. has been quietly shattering gun records since 2020 began.

People purchased at least 20 million guns — more than ever before — and a record 40% of them went to first-time buyers, raising additional safety and suicide concerns. America’s cities also saw the largest ever one-year spike in homicides, which hit communities of color especially hard.

At the same time, policymakers lack the data and the conclusive studies they need to respond effectively to this public health crisis. The roots of these shortcomings trace back to 1996, when Congress effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from funding activities that “advocate or promote gun control.” That move, and others that followed in subsequent years, had a chilling effect on overall federal support for most facets of gun violence research. 

While it can be hard to quantify the impact of this decadeslong drought in federal support, experts often point to the drastic reduction seen in motor vehicle deaths as an example of how comparatively little progress has been made on gun safety. 

Although the politics of cars and guns are not the same, University of Colorado physician and researcher Emmy Betz said, “Our death rate from motor vehicle crashes has fallen drastically over the past decades because we applied science. We made better cars. We put airbags in. We figured out driver education programs, DUI enforcement programs. We didn’t ban cars, but we used science to make driving safer and we did not do that with firearms.”

One JAMA study found that between 2004 and 2015, motor vehicle accidents received 19 times more funding and 26 times more research publications than gun violence. As recently as 2019, the CDC had only dedicated $269,000 of their $7 billion annual budget to firearms-related activities, according to analysis by a gun safety advocacy group.

The Policy: Increase Federal Research Funding

At the end of 2019, Congress approved $25 million for gun violence research — the first new dedicated federal funding for the field in more than 20 years. The money was split evenly between the CDC and National Institutes of Health, and the first grants were awarded in late 2020.

The breadth of projects receiving funding reflects the diversity of health risks posed by guns, from suicides and homicides to accidental injuries and mass shootings. Betz, the University of Colorado researcher, received some of the first NIH funding. One of her projects is the first large-scale study of an approach to reducing suicides (which account for 60% of all gun deaths), known as voluntary storage, that helps gun owners in crisis find a place to temporarily store their firearms outside the home.

Other funded projects include a randomized control trial of a hospital-based approach to preventing retaliatory violence and a study of the impact that state laws have on intimate partner homicide.

More projects are in the pipeline, with Congress approving another $25 million for gun violence research in the 2020 year-end spending bill. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, told the New York Times she hopes to double that budget this year.

Resources Remain Limited

Experts agree this new funding presents meaningful opportunities, but they also note it pales in comparison to the amount of ground researchers need to make up after 25 years of limited support. They also acknowledge the political realities that may constrain the potential for new research to lead to policy change.

There are myriad opinions about how this limited amount of new funding should be prioritized. For example, experts like Boston University researcher Jonathan Jay said he hopes to see an emphasis on community-driven interventions and those that take into account “structural racism and the social determinants of health.”

Outside of funding, other experts would like to see more federal support for improving the country’s infrastructure for tracking gun violence data, a critical ingredient for high-quality research and evidence-based policymaking. 

Want more Tradeoffs? Sign up for our weekly newsletter!

Episode Resources

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. Both lines are free and open 24/7.

Reporting on Recent Gun Violence:

Shootings never stopped during the pandemic: 2020 was the deadliest gun violence year in decades (Reis Thebault and Danielle Rindler, Washington Post, 3/23/2021)

Americans bought guns in record numbers in 2020 during a year of unrest — and the surge is continuing (Martin Savidge and Maria Cartaya, CNN, 3/14/2021)

Gun Violence 20/20 City Tracker (Jonathan Jay, 3/5/2021)

Tracking America’s Gun Sales Boom (Daniel Nass, The Trace, updated 3/2/2021)

Mass Shootings Are Soaring, With Black Neighborhoods Hit Hardest (Champe Barton, J. Brian Charles, Jennifer Mascia and Chip Brownlee; The Trace; 9/3/2020)

Resources on Gun Violence Research:

Can New Gun Violence Research Find a Path Around the Political Stalemate? (Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times, 3/27/2021)

Congress approved $25M in funding for gun safety research. Now what? (Grace Hauck, Nicquel Terry Ellis and Max Filby; USA Today; 2/10/2020)

The State of Firearms Data in 2019 (NORC; 01/2020)

Funding and Publication of Research on Gun Violence and Other Leading Causes of Death (David E. Stark and Nigam H. Shah, JAMA, 1/3/2017)

Episode Credits


Emmy Betz, MD, MPH, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Director of the Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative, University of Colorado

Jonathan Jay, DrPH, JD, Assistant Professor of Community Health Sciences, Boston University

Autumn Parkin, gun owner and advocate

The Tradeoffs theme song was composed by Ty Citerman. Additional music this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.

This episode was produced by Leslie Walker and mixed by Andrew Parrella.

Additional thanks to Daniel Webster, Caterina Roman, Walk the Talk, Perrie Briskin, the Tradeoffs Advisory Board and our stellar staff!