Comment: After decades of school shootings we have no answers

Why? Because federal research into causes and possible solutions hadn’t begun until this September.

By Julianna Goldman / Bloomberg Opinion

As of right now, in the entire country, there is just a single federally funded study on preventing gun violence in America’s schools. It started in September.

And in the days since 19 children and two teachers were gunned down in their classroom at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, members of the research team of about a dozen scientists and educators have been furiously emailing back and forth, asking how they can speed up the work on their three-year grant.

“We really don’t know what works and what doesn’t to keep schools safe from events like Tuesday,” said Charles Branas, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University and one of the lead investigators in the study. School districts across the country are formulating policies in a vacuum without “any evidence to hang their hat on.”

Wait, what? Columbine. Sandy Hook. Parkland. The federal government wasn’t funding this kind of research before? The answer is no; not for more than 20 years.

In 1996, Congress passed the so-called “Dickey Amendment,” named after the late Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., who retired from Congress with an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association. The measure effectively cut off funding for research on gun violence at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dickey had a change of heart following the 2012 massacre in a Colorado movie theater that killed 12 people. He partnered with a former nemesis, Mark Rosenberg, then director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, to argue that gun violence should be treated like a public health crisis. In a 2012 op-ed article in The Washington Post, they implored Congress to restore the funding.

“We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago, but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries,” they wrote. “Ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners.”

It wasn’t for another six years that a Republican president, Donald Trump, signed a spending bill that restored CDC research for gun violence and prevention. In 2020 and 2021, Congress allocated $25 million over three years for such research, split between the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. But that’s a pittance, Rosenberg says, compared to the $200 million annual spending over 50 years on research into preventing motor vehicle injuries. That spending has helped save 600,000 lives; about the same number of lives, he notes, lost to gun violence between 2000 and 2020.

Branas and his team are studying about 650 public schools across the country in urban and non-urban centers. The team is looking at schools that have experienced gun violence and those that haven’t, examining the effectiveness of about two dozen safety tactics and policies.

The study is in such early stages that there isn’t even preliminary data. “It’s really unclear if arming teachers is a solution. Teachers already have a major job in a classroom,” he told me. “We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the implications of running kids through lockdown drills.”

The CDC and NIH have awarded some 28 grants to study a range of gun violence issues, including the best ways to intervene and prevent threats of gun violence on social media; how to figure out who is most at risk of being victims of gun violence and who is most at risk of perpetrating violent gun acts; and the development of a website to teach children hunting, shooting and firearms safety.

“Science is not the set of perfect answers,” Rosenberg told me. “It’s a tool for reaching the answers.”

Branas hopes his team’s findings can be used by school districts around the country to inform prescriptive measures and prevent other children from being senselessly gunned down.

I look forward to their findings. But when it comes to gun violence — as with vaccines and climate change — I worry whether data and scientific arguments are enough. The aftermath of a mass shooting is by now sadly familiar. There’s a template, with rolling coverage leading up to a visit from the president, an impassioned plea for stricter gun laws and failed votes in Congress.

The vast majority of the country supports universal background checks, most people want to ban gun purchases by those with mental illness, and they don’t want people carrying concealed weapons without permits. And yet there is a feeling of hopelessness that American society is incapable of doing anything about these massacres. Maybe we hugged our children a little tighter and a little longer this morning before we sent them off to school. What else can we do?

“It makes us doubly motivated that we have to find something, that we have to contribute to a solution here,” Branas told me. “And that drives an inkling of optimism for us.”

Julianna Goldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who was formerly a Washington-based correspondent for CBS News and White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Television.

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