Last week, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence, a report intended to inform scientific research that can guide policies to reduce gun violence. The report was in part a response President Barack Obama’s directive to the Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies after the Newton Connecticut shootings to resume scientific research on gun violence. In 1996, at the behest of the gun industry and its supporters, Congress had ended most federal funding for research on gun violence.
In 2010, firearms injured or killed more than 105,000 Americans, with twice as many nonfatal firearm-related injuries (73,505) as deaths. “The complexity and frequency of gun-related violence combined with its impact on the health and safety of the nation’s residents make it a topic of considerable public health importance,” said Alan Leshner, chairman of the IOM study committee and chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The IOM works outside of government to provide unbiased and authoritative advice to decision makers and the public.
The report calls for additional research on several topics including:
- The characteristics of firearm violence,
- Risk and protective factors,
- Interventions and strategies to reduce gun violence ,
- Gun safety technology, and
- The influence of video games and other media.
It proposes a research agenda that will produce results in three to five years. The report makes the case that “the evidence generated by implementing a public health research agenda can enable the development of sound policies that support both the rights and the responsibilities central to gun ownership in the United States. In the absence of this research, policy makers will be left to debate controversial policies without scientifically sound evidence about their potential effects.”
To illustrate the dangers of ideology rather than evidence-based policy, the report notes that while “firearm safety education programs are widespread in public schools… they are inadequately studied and the few evaluations that have been conducted provide little evidence of effectiveness.” This directly contradicts the NRA’s assertion that these programs have been shown to reduce gun injuries and deaths and should be the foundation of public policy.
The report is an important step forward in defining a research agenda on gun violence and provides scientific credibility for several important lines of research. But the IOM report is as important for what it does not say as for its recommendations. The term “gun industry” or “firearm industry” does not appear in the report. The words “National Rifle Association”, the organization that is the main obstacle to sensible gun policy, do not appear, except in the Appendix as identifications for two witnesses to the panel. The word “political” appears once and “campaign contributions” and “lobbying” not at all. These omissions are not surprising because in mainstream scientific discourse describing the political or corporate influences on research is as impolite and inappropriate as farting in public.
Some readers may argue that such criticism of a worthwhile report is unfair —this was after all a scientific report not a political analysis. But corporate practices have become an increasingly important influence on health and health policy. As the firearms, pharmaceutical, automobile, alcohol and food and beverage industries—among others—use their political and financial clout to influence health policy, failing to address these political dimensions makes it less likely that effective policies will emerge. Ignoring their role and failing to support research that documents industry influence on policy leaves advocates of healthier policies unequipped to succeed in the political arena where policies are shaped. It’s bad science and bad policy analysis.
As long as the behavior of corporations is off the polite scientific agenda, it will be difficult to design research studies or develop public health policies and programs that can address the most important causes of premature mortality and preventable illness and injury in the world today. In failing to discuss the need for research on the role of the gun industry and its supporters in gun violence, the IOM panel missed an important opportunity to educate the public, policy makers and scientists.