As shock and grief give way to anger, the urge to act is powerful. But beyond helping the survivors deal with their grief and consequences of this horror, what can the medical and public health community do? What actions can the nation take to prevent more such acts from happening, or at least limit their severity? More broadly, what can be done to reduce the number of US residents who die each year from firearms, currently more than 31 000 annually?
The answers are undoubtedly complex and at this point, only partly known. For gun violence, particularly mass killings such as that in Newtown, to occur, intent and means must converge at a particular time and place. Decades of research have been devoted to understanding the factors that lead some people to commit violence against themselves or others. Substantially less has been done to understand how easy access to firearms mitigates or amplifies both the likelihood and consequences of these acts.
For example, background checks have an effect on inappropriate procurement of guns from licensed dealers, but private gun sales require no background check. Laws mandating a minimum age for gun ownership reduce gun fatalities, but firearms still pass easily from legal owners to juveniles and other legally proscribed individuals, such as felons or persons with mental illness. Because ready access to guns in the home increases, rather than reduces, a family's risk of homicide in the home, safe storage of guns might save lives. Nevertheless, many gun owners, including gun-owning parents, still keep at least one firearm loaded and readily available for self-defense.
The nation might be in a better position to act if medical and public health researchers had continued to study these issues as diligently as some of us did between 1985 and 1997. But in 1996, pro-gun members of Congress mounted an all-out effort to eliminate the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although they failed to defund the center, the House of Representatives removed $2.6 million from the CDC's budget—precisely the amount the agency had spent on firearm injury research the previous year. Funding was restored in joint conference committee, but the money was earmarked for traumatic brain injury. The effect was sharply reduced support for firearm injury research.
To ensure that the CDC and its grantees got the message, the following language was added to the final appropriation: “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency's funding to find out. Extramural support for firearm injury prevention research quickly dried up. Even today, 17 years after this legislative action, the CDC's website lacks specific links to information about preventing firearm-related violence.