This story originally appeared on The Trace.
On November 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a 14-page report on gun violence in Wilmington, Delaware, a medium-sized city of roughly 70,000 residents that also experiences one of the highest murder rates in the country. To judge by the language in its title—"Elevated Rates of Urban Firearm Violence and Opportunities for Prevention"—the study might seem to have been an overlooked watershed: Despite a 2013 executive order by President Barack Obama to resume research on gun violence, the CDC has adhered to a two-decade-old congressional restriction that effectively bans such inquiries. Now here was a document suggesting it was tiptoeing back in.
Read through the Wilmington report, though, and you get a different story—one about the strange contortions that result as the CDC seeks to fulfill its public health mission without violating Congress's orders.
While the new study analyzed Wilmington's 127 recorded shootings in 2013, it does not address how the perpetrators acquired their weapons, or if attempts to limit access to firearms might lead to a dip in crime. Instead, the Wilmington report outlines already well-established trends and risk factors: that 95 percent of city residents arrested for violent crimes are young men; that a history of violence is a strong predictor for being involved in a firearm-related crime; and that unemployment is often a risk factor for violence. The report concludes that "integrating data systems" across Delaware would allow social service providers to better understand the issue.
If the CDC wasn't going to consider the role of firearms in Wilmington's gun crimes, why do the study at all? The answer is in the research's origins, which lie in a bizarro world of not-actually-about-gun-violence gun violence studies that are an outgrowth of the congressional ban. "It's not like the study was initiated by the CDC," Dr. Linda Degutis, the former director of the center's national injury center, told The Trace. "It was a response to a request from the city."
Specifically, the Wilmington study is a product of the CDC's "Epi-Aids" program, which assists states and local governments with public health problems through the agency's Epidemic Intelligence Service division. Because the CDC is under immense political pressure to avoid doing anything that might even appear to "advocate or promote gun control" (in the words of Congress), Epi-Aid requests like Wilmington's—which revolve around firearm-related public health issues—put the agency in a difficult situation.
In a proper epidemiological study, guns themselves would be treated as a risk factor for many types of violence or injury—just as mosquitoes would be treated as a risk factor for contracting malaria, for example. As it is, the agency is confined to rehashing social or environmental factors that have already been thoroughly studied by injury researchers.
"When a health department requests an investigation of something, that's basically within the CDC's authorization, because they're not necessarily saying 'Let's do gun violence research.' They're saying 'Let's figure out what's going on here,'" said Degutis, who said she left the organization last year in part because she was frustrated with the difficulty of conducting research on gun violence.
The center's moratorium on gun violence research stems from an NRA-backed budget amendment passed in 1996. Obama ordered the agency to relaunch gun studies shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre, but his budget requests in 2014 and 2015—which would have dedicated $10 million to the issue—were refused by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The CDC still regards gun violence as so off-limits that it's not even listed under the Table of Contents section in its recently released index of research priorities. Throughout the 47-page report, the word "firearm" is only used four times: three in reference to youth violence and once in reference to suicide prevention.
Essentially, examining behaviors where guns play a role, without delving into the issue of firearm accessibility, allows the CDC to appear responsive to a pressing local public health issue without triggering alarm bells in Congress. It's a pattern that plays out at the agency with some regularity: A 2012 CDC investigation of youth suicides in two Delaware counties barely mentions guns, even though they're the most common method of committing suicide in the United States. And in June, the CDC published a paper on recent gun injury statistics—but Degutis says that effort, too, was based on existing information the organization already had access to the figures through its general injury databases.
CDC spokeswoman Courtney Lenard had this to say when asked why a study on firearms violence wouldn't explore whether gun accessibility plays a role in gun crime rates: "Prevention requires understanding the factors that influence violence—considering the complex interplay between individual, relationship, community, and societal factors," she wrote in an email. "It allows us to address the factors that put people at risk for experiencing violence as a victim or perpetrator."
David Hemenway, a gun violence researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, didn't work on the CDC's Wilmington report. But he's skeptical that it effectively addressed firearm crimes in the city. Hemenway described its lack of focus on access to guns as "crazy," adding that access is often a key data point to help predict where crimes will occur.
"You can't take your eyes off something so important as the guns," he says, "because what the guns do is make things lethal."