President Obama signed an executive order authorizing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to research gun violence for the first time in 17 years on Wednesday, echoing recommendations raised by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
The Crime Lab, which researches crime and violence both in Chicago and nationally, sent a letter last Thursday to Vice President Joe Biden and his “gun violence commission,” formed in the wake of the Newtown shooting, calling for the President to dramatically increase support for gun policy research.
Crime Lab co-director Professor Harold Pollack said he believes the letter may have influenced the executive order. “I believe they took our letter into account, although they certainly heard complementary messages from many other sources about these long-standing issues in gun policy. Many issues raised in our letter were specifically noted in the President’s materials,” he said.
The executive order will have important ramifications in gun policy, according to Professor Jens Ludwig, co-director of the Crime Lab and one of the letter’s authors. Without extensive research, he said, policymakers cannot develop pragmatic solutions to gun violence.
“Effective policy is difficult to formulate if we don’t fully understand the nature of the underlying problem— such as how exactly guns make their way from legal licensed firearm dealers to criminals through the underground gun market— and if we cannot evaluate new gun policy innovations,” he said.
Obama conveyed similar sentiments in his remarks.
“We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence,” he said in his announcement.
In recent years, Congress has placed legal and financial constraints on gun policy research, actions spearheaded by the gun rights lobby.
According to a 2011 New York Times article, Congress effectively eliminated funding for gun research at the CDC in 1996, bowing to pressure from gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA). Congress cut $2.6 million from the CDC budget, which is the exact amount the agency spent on gun research in the previous year, and declared that “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.” In 2011, these restrictions were also placed on the National Institute of Health.
Consequently, these agencies “have been pretty effectively discouraged from supporting research on gun violence,” Ludwig said.
Another executive order announced on Wednesday addressed an additional concern raised by the Crime Lab’s letter: the current limitations of gun data collection. The letter recommended expanding the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), which tracks the sale and distribution of guns that are ultimately used in murders. The executive order called on Congress to budget $20 million to implement the NVDRS in all 50 states. Currently, only 18 states employ the NVDR system, according to the Lab’s letter.
According to Ludwig, the lack of data has severely compromised attempts to pursue substantial research in gun violence around the country and at the Crime Lab. The Lab hopes to conduct a wide-ranging study of the underground gun market in urban areas, but existing legislation limits access to relevant data.
“One of the key ways that social scientists try to understand how things work is to make comparisons across places and over time in terms of how social conditions vary...in the local policy or enforcement environment. That’s obviously difficult to do if we can’t assemble any crime [or] gun data from anywhere,” he said.