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Obama moves to lift firearm research restrictions

President Obama has directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other scientific agencies to research the causes and prevention of gun violence, loosening restrictions on federal funding in this contentious area.

The president’s 16 January memorandum was spurred by the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school last month that killed 20 children and several adults, as well as other mass shootings in recent years.

About 30,000 firearm-related homicides and suicides occur each year in the US, which should constitute a public health crisis, the White House said. But it noted that CDC and other scientific agencies have been barred by Congress from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control”, and some members of Congress have claimed this prohibition also bans any research on the causes of gun violence.

“And while year after year, those who oppose even modest gun safety measures have threatened to de-fund scientific or medical research into the causes of gun violence, I will direct the Centers for Disease Control to go ahead and study the best ways to reduce it,” the president asserted.

In addition, he said Congress should fund research into the effects of violent video games on young minds. Nobody benefits from ignorance or from not knowing “the science of this epidemic of violence”, he added.

Widely anticipated recommendations from the President’s Commission on Gun Violence, chaired by vice president Joe Biden, were presented to Obama earlier this week. The president reviewed the recommendations and on 16 January announced 23 executive actions in response, including the presidential memorandum.

On 10 January, more than 100 researchers wrote to Biden urging his commission to help lift the current barriers to firearm-related research.

“Gun policy research and evaluation should be carried out through the normal processes of scientific peer-review employed in other important areas of clinical medicine and public health,” said the researchers, who work in the areas of crime, medicine, public health, economics and public policy.

“Removal of constraints on research would send an important message to both federal officials and the research community regarding their independence from political and ideological interference in the research process,” they concluded.

Although the researchers agreed that federal scientific funds should not be used to advance ideological agendas on any topic, they said this particular appropriations rider has the effect of “discouraging the funding of well-crafted scientific studies”.

They called on the federal government to make direct investments in “unbiased scientific research” and data infrastructure, arguing that Congress should increase funding to relevant federal agencies for the purpose of studying, developing and evaluating firearm violence reduction policies.

The researchers described basic and applied research in this area as “paltry”. They noted that NIH awarded 486 research grants focused on addressing cholera, diphtheria, polio and rabies between 1973 and 2012 when there was a total of 486 cases of those diseases, while the agency has awarded only three research grants in the area of firearm injuries during the same period even though there were more than 4 million cases.