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US Institute of Medicine lays out gun-research agenda

When he responded in January to the massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, US President Barack Obama issued 23 orders aiming to address the US epidemic of gun violence — including one directing the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to re-start gun research, which has languished since 1996.

The CDC, in turn, asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a branch of the National Academies, to recommend a gun-research agenda. Today, the IOM delivered its recommendations.

The committee that wrote the 69-page report — chaired by Alan Leshner, the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science — was asked to examine five areas: the characteristics of firearm violence; risk factors and preventive factors; interventions and strategies; gun-safety technology; and the influence of video games and other media.

The panel generated a long list of questions that it said could be pursued. They include whether point-of-purchase background checks actually deter people who are forbidden from owning firearms from getting hold of them, and how effective current policies and laws are at preventing gun sales to people with specific psychiatric diagnoses.

The report suggests a study to determine whether specific safety technologies, such as iris scans and gun-activating magnetic-stripe badges, actually reduce gun injuries and fatalities — and, if they are effective, why they work. And it calls for a look at whether there is a relationship between long-term exposure to media violence and subsequent firearm-related violence. Existing studies on media and video games veer to the short term, it notes, and few of them are specific to gun violence.

The breadth and depth of the unanswered questions point glaringly to how little is known on a huge range of issues, as Nature recently noted in this profile of firearms researcher Garen Wintemute. But funding for studies on even a fraction of the questions the IOM proposes is likely to be limited in a very tight government budget environment.

Obama asked Congress to provide US$10 million in new funds to the CDC next year to begin the research, but it is far from clear that Capitol Hill will oblige. If not, the CDC — which is already confronting a proposed $216-million cut in its congressional budget next year, and an additional 5% across-the-board chop known as sequestration — will have to cut one or more of its other programmes to produce the money.

The IOM committee was not asked to weigh in on funding questions, but it left little doubt where it stands on the value of the research it recommends. “In the absence of this research, policy makers will be left to debate controversial policies without scientifically sound evidence about their potential effects,” they write.

In an e-mailed statement, the CDC said that it  “thanks the IOM for developing the report in a timely manner and looks forward to reviewing the report”.


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