Can Obama end the long fight over gun violence research?

As part of his 23 executive actions addressing gun violence, President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) must begin researching the causes of that violence.

“We don't benefit from ignorance,” Obama said at the White House. “We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.” The president also asked Congress to infuse the agency with an extra $10 million for this research, which will include studying whether violent video games and other media images have an effect on violence levels.

For those who didn't tune in to the congressional battles of the '90s, this announcement might seem odd. Why doesn't the CDC, which is dedicated to helping Americans prevent disease and injury, already study the causes and effects of firearm-related violence?

As with most highly charged political battles, it depends on which side you ask.

The CDC used to conduct extensive research into gun violence, but comments by CDC officials about the dangers of guns sparked a backlash. In 1994, A CDC official who oversaw the section of the agency that researched gun violence told the Washington Post, "We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes. Now it is dirty, deadly and banned." Around the same time, a CDC-funded nonprofit published a pamphlet encouraging people concerned about gun violence to “organize a picket at gun manufacturing sites” and write to their local politicians about gun control.

By 1996, outraged House Republicans had had enough: They led the effort to defund the part of the CDC that researched gun violence, and added a special rule preventing the agency from engaging in any activity that promoted gun control.

After the defunding, the CDC's spending on gun research dropped from a few million dollars a year in the 1990s to zero dollars today, and a larger message was sent to agencies that wading into gun research or data collection could lead to trouble with Congress. Separate federal actions limited other agencies' ability to collect data on gun ownership.

Over the years, pro-gun advocates and some social science researchers have contended that public health researchers who worked for or were funded by the CDC had a clear anti-gun agenda that led to sub-par and politically motivated research. That bias has not changed even though the CDC funding has dried up, they say.

"The ideology of the medical/public health researchers has not changed, and the quality of their research has not improved," says Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University. Kleck contends that his research on gun ownership and violence, which is often cited by the pro-gun rights side, is ignored by public health gun researchers.

In the public health research world, however, there's a near consensus that a gun lobby-backed campaign against the CDC has purposely suppressed research on the subject for political reasons, a setback that has left the field decades behind. Published academic research on firearm violence fell 60 percent between 1996 and 2010, according to a report by the pro-gun control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The CDC, the National Institutes of Health and the Justice Department's research arm all completely stopped or dramatically reduced their funding for gun-related research over the same period.

Researchers, many of whom depend upon federal grants, moved to other topics or reduced their firearms-related output.

"It's been very hard for people on soft money like myself to get funding for a lot of research," says David Hemenway, director of Harvard University's Injury Control Research Center. ("Soft money" means researchers are responsible for raising their own funds.)

Larry Cohen, founder of the nonprofit Prevention Group and a leader in the movement to define violence as a preventable public health issue, says the defunding of the CDC had a "chilling impact" on research in the gun violence field. After the defunding, "for the most part the research went away, so it had its desired effect," he says.

Questions including the safest way to store weapons in the home and whether firearm safety classes work have not been addressed, public health researchers say. "We're nearly 20 years behind in our ability to really ask these kinds of important questions," said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

It's unclear how much of an effect the president's announcement will have on the field, however. A spokeswoman from the CDC said the agency will not begin doling out gun research funds until financial year 2014. Without the additional funds from Congress, it's unclear how much the CDC would be able to give out. If Congress complies with Obama's request to hand over $10 million for gun violence research, however, a bigger impact could be made.

"It would be a very needed breath of fresh air for Congress to allow the CDC to study this issue," Cohen says. The move may also remove a climate of fear around the research, public health researchers hope.

But those who pushed for the defunding in the 1990s worry the CDC could now push for more restrictions on guns through their research. "I'm concerned that if President Obama's recommendation to restore funding to the CDC is implemented that we are going to see once again the same thing that we saw back in the 1990s," says Dr. Tim Wheeler, a retired physician and the head of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership. "We're going to see a very powerful and very prominent federal agency using tax money to advocate for gun control and generating these pseudo-scientific studies to back it up."

Many public health researchers do believe gun ownership can be a health hazard, especially when it comes to suicide. Cohen says he hopes the surgeon general will release a report on suicides and firearms.

A National Academy of Sciences review of gun-related research in 2004 found that higher gun-ownership rates are associated with higher suicide rates. The report did not find evidence that right-to-carry laws lead to either an increase or decrease in violent crime.

The report also noted that researchers are hog-tied by a lack of good data on firearms collected by the government, including data on gun ownership. Without this data, it's hard for researchers to make strides, even with federal funds.