This important news was lost in the pandemic: Earlier this year, Congressional leaders funded research on gun violence for the first time in more than 20 years. Twenty-five million was set to be awarded, to be split between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
For people who follow the gun question in America – which has done as much to rip the country apart along political lines as any other single issue – it was a major step forward in the effort to establish a common language around guns.
“We’ve reached a point where we have much more information about traffic killings than gun deaths,” said philanthropist Laura Arnold, principal in Arnold Ventures, in an interview. “The issue has been so hyper politicized. … that we as a philanthropic community, that we as voters, don’t have the information we need.”
In August 2018, Laura and John Arnold announced they would put together a consortium of private funders to put in $50 million toward unbiased gun violence research. Their express purpose: put public pressure on the government to step up to the plate. In a recent interview, Laura Arnold talked about the role that may have played in the federal government’s shift.
Why So Little Research?
The NRA had long blocked federal research into gun violence, saying the government was inherently biased and any research would be used to support gun regulation. The near-prohibition dates to 1996, when the NRA wielded tremendous power in Congress. It used that power to lobby and pass the Dickey Amendment.
The result was that over the past 20 years, the federal government’s gun violence research stalled. While there are basic statistics such as how many people die from gun homicides and suicides (the numbers are at their highest levels in decades), it’s not possible to answer basic questions, such as whether owning a gun makes you more likely to die of a gunshot.
It’s hard to say how much the Arnolds’ high-profile effort two years ago helped. Paradoxically, the gun lobby typically weakens during Republican administrations as its members worry less about gun regulation. Anti-gun violence groups, including Everytown and Giffords Courage To Fight Gun Violence have become more organized; there’s now include a Moms Demand Action army to match the gun lobby’s famous grassroots organization. And the NRA has also been rocked by a series of scandals, including revelations of big spending by Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, legal actions by the state of New York and another tell-all book.
But still, the Arnolds were prescient – and their support for deep science is particularly significant in an era when funding for science and deep research has been declining and even under attack from many sides.
“As we studied the issue, it became increasingly clear to us at Arnold Ventures that philanthropy could play an important role in catalyzing–or re-catalyzing–an evidence-based approach to gun violence,” said Laura Arnold in a follow-up email.
They invited the NRA to take part, and the group appeared before a scientific advisory board put together by Arnold Ventures. Research organization RAND is running the effort.
So far, it has given away $17.2 million in grants. John Arnold is a former energy trader who worked at Enron and later founded his own firm. Since his retirement at 38, the Arnolds have made science one of their primary causes.
The Foundation takes on systemic issues where the costs of not having a solution is borne by the most vulnerable people, Laura Arnold said. “Gun violence … we’ve not a seen a drive toward solutions,” she said. “It’s been stuck in this ideological trap.”
Earlier in her career, Laura Arnold studied extreme right movements in France. She concluded that “sometimes it really is about listening. People (join these movements because they) don’t feel heard in some way. You just have to understand the world that people who are so different from you believe in.”
At the same time individuals are fearful, there are enormous financial forces behind the status quo.
“What we’re saying is: Nobody knows anything now. That’s not much of an overstatement.
Why don’t we at least get some data on the issues that of interest to both sides,” she said.