Dr. Karen Liller coauthors paper on lack of firearms safety and injury research

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June is Firearm Safety Month

Firearms are a hot topic these days. Firearms injury and safety funding? Not so much—at least not yet.

That’s because, say experts like Dr. Karen Liller, a USF College of Public Health professor of community and family health who specializes in injury prevention, there’s a lack of strong federal support for the research and its funding. And where there’s a lack of funding, there’s a lack of scholars.

Liller is coauthor of a recent American Journal of Public Health article entitled, “Priorities in Recovering From a Lost Generation of Firearms Research.”

“We have strong research supporting air bags and other safety features in automobiles,” said Liller. “And there’s good evidence for other injury prevention measures such as motorcycle and bicycle helmets. But we don’t know much about weapons and the damage they cause. There hasn’t been enough research, for example, on how guns trade hands and what safety mechanisms and features are effective. There’s very little funding for this research.”

A major reason for the lack of funding, noted Liller and her coauthors, is the Dickey Amendment. Passed by Congress in 1996, the amendment prohibits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using any federal money to advocate or promote gun control.  This led to a great cut in federal funding that has not been restored to this day.

Karen Liller, PhD, and colleagues investigate the lack of firearms injury and safety research in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health. (Photo courtesy of Caitlin Keough)

“It’s not that there hasn’t been research done,” commented Liller. “But, it hasn’t been done to the magnitude needed. Don’t forget—the Second Amendment is part of our national fabric. But instead of looking at this as a political issue, we need to see it as a safety, violence and public health issue.”

Liller acknowledged that even if funding increases, there needs to be trained scholars willing to gather the data. And right now, those are in short supply.

“We’ve lost an entire generation of potential firearms scholars,” Liller said. “People who could have been studying and understanding the epidemiology and dynamics of owning and using firearms.”

Funding aside, she noted, scholars like to be engaged where “knowledge is growing, where the necessary questions are being asked, where they can advocate and see change. For the last several decades, firearms research has pretty much been stagnant.”

Change—propelled, in part, by recent high-profile mass shootings—is occurring, however slowly.

To wit: The American Journal of Public Health published just one article on firearms in 2013, five in 2015 and 12 in 2017; researchers are going after private funding; and states are leading the call to change gun laws with safety in mind.

Liller and her coauthors are advocating for research training programs for junior scholars, innovative funding mechanisms (such as the development of research consortiums that can allow for a rapid turnaround for grants) and a national database of firearm violence that researchers can access.

“We’re riding a wave,” said Liller. “We’re moving forward, but we are greatly behind. And we need to make up for lost time.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health