MPA advocates lifting gun research funding ban

By Janine Weisman
November 1st, 2016

A move by the Massachusetts Psychological Association to push for the removal of barriers on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ability to fund research on gun violence is inspiring the region’s other associations to pursue advocacy efforts on the issue.

In an Aug. 30 letter sent to Massachusetts’ nine representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives and two U.S. senators, the leadership of the 1,600-member association voiced strong support for finding legislative solutions to what amounts to a ban on funding gun violence research.

The letter was signed by MPA President Dawn Cisewski, Psy.D., Executive Director Brian Doherty, Director of Professional Affairs Jennifer Warkentin, Ph.D., and Federal Advocacy Coordinator Linda Daniels, Psy.D.

The letter came about after the MPA Advocacy Committee discussed gun violence last June following the Orlando nightclub shooting that left 50 people dead, including the shooter, in what is the deadliest mass public shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history.

A copy of the letter was distributed to MPA members via email with a note indicating that “One of the founding principles of our profession is the belief that empirical research is a vital component in creating effective prevention and intervention efforts.”

“It’s definitely something we’ll want to see if we can have a voice in as well,” said Wendy Plante, Ph.D., who serves as federal advocacy coordinator for the Rhode Island Psychological Association.

“That’s what psychologists do in terms of public policy and passing laws. It’s not just to spout our opinions but to really provide the behavioral science. We want everything to be empirically based.”

Plante, a staff psychologist and director of outpatient services for Hasbro Children’s Hospital’s Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and clinical associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, said RIPA’s board of directors were slated to discuss the issue at its October monthly meeting.

Maine Psychological Association Executive Director Sheila Comerford said a discussion about CDC funding on gun violence research would be added to its leadership’s agenda and may be taken up by its Peace and Social Justice Committee, which has recently been reconstituted after being dormant for a couple of years.

Connecticut Psychological Association President Miki Lasher, Ph.D., said she planned to bring the matter to the board’s attention and consideration regarding support and advocacy efforts.

New Hampshire Psychological Association Executive Director Leisl M. Bryant, Ph.D., ABPP said that several other pressing local issues have taken priority on the association board’s October meeting agenda. “However, the Board is aware of the importance of this topic and hope to discuss it in greater detail soon,” Bryant said in an email.

Vermont Psychological Association President and Federal Advocacy Coordinator Judith Markey, Psy.D., said her association needs to discuss the issue first before commenting or agreeing to join MPA’s effort. “We will however, put this issue on the agenda for our next full board meeting, in November,” Markey said.

The CDC funded gun violence research in the 1980s and early 1990s, including a case control study of homicides in Shelby County, Tennessee, King County, Washington, and Cuyahoga County, Ohio, published in 1993 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study led by Arthur L. Kellerman, M.D., M.P.H., found that having a gun in a home increased the risk of homicide nearly three times and supported prior research that found a strong association between gun ownership and suicide in the home.

The study and others that seemed to favor stricter gun control fueled an intense lobbying effort by the National Rifle Association to get Congress to cut the CDC’s budget for gun violence research.

In 1996, Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, named after U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey (R.-Arkansas), which mandated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control” at the CDC “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

A provision in the same spending bill set aside $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget – the same amount allocated for gun research in the prior year – for traumatic brain injury-related research. The restriction was expanded in later years.

In January 2013, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., President Obama signed a memorandum directing the CDC to research the causes and prevention of gun violence along with other initiatives. But his budget requests were denied by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Gun violence is not identified at all as a CDC research priority. The word “firearm” appears only three times and “gun” only once in the 47-page CDC Injury Center Research Priorities guide and only in the section on youth violence.

Estimates of how many U.S. households own at least one gun vary. They range from 33 percent in a January 2013 Pew Research Center survey to 34 percent in the General Social Survey conducted in 2012 by NORC at the University of Chicago. The estimate was 38 percent in an analysis of 2004 data by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and 42 percent in a 2013 Gallup poll.

But the lack of hard data on gun ownership is just one of many areas where more information is needed to inform public policy and prevent gun violence. An American Psychological Association task force on gun violence and gun safety summarized the gaps in literature and the need for more research to frame comprehensive and effective prevention strategies in a 2014 report.

Among the findings was the need to study the effectiveness of interventions seeking to change perceptions among males of social norms about masculinity in reducing the prevalence of intimate partner and sexual violence.

APA noted the need for further piloting and study of community-based programs involving police training in crisis intervention and community members trained in mental health first aid.

Additionally, APA called for more research to investigate strategies for limiting access to firearms by persons with serious mental illness.

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