For years, the gun debate has been obscured by the fact that there is a dearth of objective research on the subject. Given that, New Jersey leaders are looking to build their own body of scientific research on gun violence — including the risks, impacts, and policy implications — based in part on a University of California program that was the first of its kind nationwide.
Democratic lawmakers have introduced two proposals to empower Rutgers University to conduct detailed studies of gun violence to help shape public firearm policies, including one measure that would create a separate firearm research center modeled on the one that opened in July at UC Davis Sacramento. The other bill would appropriate $400,000 for an existing Rutgers program to focus on this issue.
Gov. Phil Murphy, a progressive Democrat who took office in January, included $2 million in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2019, which begins in July, to support a gun violence center at Rutgers. Murphy, who has made reducing firearm death a priority, also joined with the governors of four other states to share data and work together to reduce the traffic in illegal guns in the region.
Filling a knowledge gap
These measures are designed to fill a knowledge gap left by the federal government, which has not conducted any significant studies on firearm violence in more than two decades — despite the growing number of mass shooting incidents at schools, churches, and other public places. This includes the massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, earlier this year.
“The prevalence of mass shootings and gun violence is a uniquely American issue. America has more guns than any other country,” said state Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth), a lead sponsor of one of the research bills. “In order to effectively combat this epidemic, we must arm ourselves with knowledge, not firearms. Only then can we find the root of the issue and address it.”
The outrage at the Stoneman Douglas shootings — which sparked student protests here and across the nation — has also fueled efforts by New Jersey lawmakers to strengthen firearms restrictions and limit access to certain weapons and ammunition. The Democratic-led state Assembly adopted six gun-control bills last week, despite vocal opposition from Second Amendment advocates, who rallied outside the State House.
New Jersey has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws and has the sixth-lowest state rate of firearm deaths per capita, or 5.5 per 100,000 people, according to 2016 data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; nationwide, the rate is 11.8. A total of 485 Garden State residents died of gun-related deaths in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics have been published, and more than 300,000 Americans lost their lives nationwide.
But while the CDC tracks firearms mortality (along with death rates from scores of other causes), an amendment to the 1996 federal spending bill — added after significant lobbying by the National Rifle Association, according to news reports — made clear that the publicly funded researchers could not use their findings to advocate for gun control. While the language does not outwardly ban gun-violence research, the impact has been the same: federal funding was diverted, private sources dried up, and few publicly backed studies have been done since.
The most recent federal spending bill, signed by President Donald Trump last month, actually included language that highlights the CDC’s ongoing authority to study gun violence. But while some welcomed this as a positive development, other experts suggested it would bring little change, since there was no funding provided to carry out this research or other encouragement to explore this topic, NPR reported.
Turning to Rutgers
One New Jersey proposal, (A-1108) — sponsored by Downey and Assembly members Eric Houghtaling (D-Monmouth) and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) — notes that this federal policy has left a major data gap. It calls for Rutgers University to establish the Firearm Violence Research Center to study all aspects of the issue, including what social factors translate to an increased risk of being shot or shooting someone else. It would also examine the impact of gun violence on society, strategies to prevent and treat firearms violence, the efficacy of existing laws, and practices that can promote responsible gun use.
The legislation also stresses that while the Garden State’s firearms death rate is lower than the national average, the numbers are “not low enough.”
“In local communities where firearm violence is a frequent occurrence, the very structure of daily life is affected,” the bill states. “Too little is known about firearm violence and prevention, and not enough research has been done. The crucial need for more sophisticated research, and for more support for the research, is readily apparent.”
As envisioned in the bill, the research center would also be used to train specialized gun-violence experts and could issue small grants to other research organizations to assist in their work. It would be required to report to state officials every five years.
Following California’s lead
The bill, which was first introduced in December 2016, now awaits a hearing; a Senate version has yet to be introduced during this legislative session. Sponsors said it is modeled largely on the University of California program, which launched in July with a $5 million grant to support their work for five years.
“We cannot base our approach to decreasing gun violence in this country on ignorance. If we will not allow the CDC to research this important issue, then we will empower our institutions of higher education to do so,” Houghtaling said. “We must end this epidemic in order to keep the residents of New Jersey safe. Research is an important first step towards that goal.”
A second proposal, (S-63), sponsored by Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), calls for Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care program to work with the School of Criminal Justice on a comprehensive study of gun violence. The bill, which appropriates $400,000 for this work, passed one committee in early February and is now pending before the Senate budget panel. An Assembly version awaits action.
Singleton’s plan, which also dates back to the previous legislative session, has in the past triggered opposition from Rutgers officials who were concerned that the state was trying to dictate the academic agenda. But the university has said it is now onboard and is working with the sponsors to craft legislation that doesn’t interfere with its independence.