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Gun violence research funding has been ‘cut off’ in last 20 years: Expert

University of Michigan Vice President for Research Dr. Rebecca Cunningham joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss gun violence in the U.S. and the lack of research funding into the issue.

Video Transcript

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: Responsible gun owners are fed up with the Second Amendment being abused and hijacked by some deranged individuals. These regulations are not a step back. They're a step forward for a civil society and the Second Amendment. Look, is this a cure-all? Hell no. The people are hurting. Families are, parents are. And look, as divided as our country is, this gun responsibility issue is one that we agree on more than we don't.

JULIE HYMAN: That was actor Matthew McConaughey on gun reform. He spoke yesterday at the White House press briefing. And that's as recent shootings in the US reignite a focus on gun violence across the nation. There are hearings now being conducted on Capitol Hill today. Let's talk about research about preventing firearm injury.

For more on that, let's bring in Dr. Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research at the University of Michigan, which has a center that has dug deeply into issues of gun violence. Thank you so much for being here. And as we hear Matthew McConaughey speak there and as we await the testimony of folks on Capitol Hill today, data is still lacking, which is pretty astonishing, given the epidemic of gun violence that we have seen. Talk to me about the funding that you all have studied for research into gun violence.

REBECCA CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, thank you so much for having me today. So when we look to understand what we do and we don't know about gun violence, we have to understand that, first of all, for most of the last 20 years, we have cut off all funding for-- most of the funding for gun violence research for those years. So from about the late 1990s through about 2015, there was very little funding on what is the leading cause of death among children in the country.

And this is only-- this is the leading cause of death this year for children and teens in this country who live past infancy. And in the years before that, it has been in the top several number of causes of death. But for-- since the 1990s, there was a real chilling effect on doing research, so-- on this topic. There was almost no funding at all for-- from the NIH or from the CDC for this topic, which is really different than when we think about other causes of death and when we think about this as a public health problem.

The first leading cause of death for many years was motor vehicle crash. And as a country, we dedicated a lot of resources to understanding how we could keep kids safer in cars and safer on the road and decrease teen driving deaths. That's research on transportation injury and safety. And we dedicated resources to that. We didn't do that for gun violence prevention or for gun safety.

So it really-- there was a chilling effect for researchers for those years, where we were, in some years, only dedicating a million dollars a year for the entire country to study this problem. That number has started to increase over the past couple of years, which is good news. However, it's still vastly underfunded. Our studies show that we're 30 times exponentially underfunded, compared to what we're funding other leading causes of death, for example, cancer research in children or motor vehicle crash death in children.

And that research is needed. People don't understand. Why do we need research on this? We need action. And we do need action, I want to be clear. But in addition to needing action, we need to understand what is being done and whether those programs and policies are effective. And as we understand whether they're effective or not, that's research. Our team last month put out the data that showed that this was, indeed, the leading cause of death for children. And just doing that work itself is analytic research that requires resources and researchers to be invested in doing.

JULIE HYMAN: Right, and Dr. Cunningham, so let's put those together. Let's put together the research and the policy because what it looks like now is that those on Capitol Hill, Democrats in particular, are taking a sort of more incremental approach, taking small steps because they feel that that is more achievable. What do we know about what measures would be most effective, whether you're talking about, for example, red-- everything from red flag laws to taking up the age that's required for people to buy a firearm to an assault weapons ban entirely? What has your research shown would be most effective?

REBECCA CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, so the first thing is, when we're talking about what's most effective, it's for what kind of gun violence. So gun violence is a multifaceted problem. It's a problem of mass shootings, these horrific shootings that are really getting our attention right now. There's also very high rates of daily gun violence in our communities that is interpersonal violence, that is domestic violence. One of the most common kinds of mass shootings in this country actually is often a domestic partner and a woman and the partner and children who are killed.

And then there's also suicide by gun. So there's many types of gun violence. If we're going to talk specifically about mass shootings and about what we can do for policy, which is one approach to this problem, so you mentioned a couple of kinds of laws. Red flag laws have been shown to have some efficacy, specifically when they're tied to having a felony associated with them, when they're enforced and enforceable.

The other things that you mentioned, child access prevention laws have also been shown to have some efficacy and to be an important part of the layering of approaches that we need. No one policy here or one prevention program is going to be the answer. In COVID, in America, we got used to hearing about a multitude of layering of preventions that help people stay safe. And gun violence is going to be like that as well.

In terms of raising the age, we should perhaps look for injury prevention research that's been done on other types of injury. In the country, when we raised the alcohol drinking age in the country from 18 to 21, we decreased teen drunk driving deaths by 30%. When we did added graduated driver licensing laws that are implemented across all states at this point, which means that 16-year-olds need to have a lot of training and a lot of supervised time before they're allowed to have a deadly vehicle in their hands and go 60 miles an hour on the highway on it, that decreased teen driving deaths, again, by about 40%.

So there are certainly lessons we can learn from other types of injury prevention. Those-- understanding and studying those will require research and funding. Not that we shouldn't implement these, but we should also, at the same time, take action by increasing the amount of funding that we have for scientists across the country to put together some of these solutions and then examine them for policymakers. And new shows like yours help understand what's working and what's not.

BRAD SMITH: A note for our viewers, as we are having this conversation, the House is having a hearing, which our viewers are seeing live on the side of your screen as well, that is involving Buffalo and Uvalde survivors. You've got those survivors that are testifying, as we speak right now.

And we'll be kind of keeping a close eye on and monitoring to see what comes forward from that. But doctor, while we have you, I do want to ask, in your research, is there anything to show where the guns are coming from, where there actually is that transport that is taking place, either across state lines or where they're initiating those sales from?

REBECCA CUNNINGHAM: So what we know about gun sales right now in America is they're up across every aspect and measure that we can find. There's more gun ownership and more gun sales in the country over the past several years than we've ever seen. So the answer is not, again, a simple one. They're coming across both legal and non-legal avenues.

I mean, we know from these last several, really, horrific, high profile shootings-- and my heart goes out to these survivors as we see them here-- is that these guns were purchased legally. And so, we do need to think about what that means for our availability and our access and how we increase safety in the same ways that we've done it for other aspects, like dangerous motor vehicles in the wrong hands.

BRAD SMITH: I believe on screen, as we're continuing to monitor the hearing. And Dr. Cunningham, thank you for your time here with us today, discussing this topic. So much more to be done on this issue. Dr. Rebecca Cunningham--

REBECCA CUNNINGHAM: So much more.

BRAD SMITH: --vice president--

REBECCA CUNNINGHAM: Thank you.

BRAD SMITH: --for research at the University of Michigan.