PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Firearm injuries kill 2,500 American children each year and send another 12,000 to emergency departments. But a new study finds that the nation spends far less on studying what led to those injuries, and what might prevent and treat them, than it spends on other, less-common causes of death in children between the ages of 1 and 18 years.
In fact, on a per-death basis, funding for pediatric firearm research is 30 times lower than it would have to be to keep pace with research on other child health threats, the study notes.
The mismatch between death toll and research funding may help to explain why firearm deaths among young people have climbed, when deaths from other causes have dropped, according to the study published in the October issue of Health Affairs by a team of researchers from the University of Michigan and Brown University.
Dr. Megan Ranney — associate professor of emergency medicine and health services, policy and practice at Brown and an emergency physician and injury prevention researcher at Rhode Island Hospital — co-authored the study with lead authors Dr. Rebecca Cunningham and Dr. Patrick Carter of the University of Michigan.
“Without dedicated funding for this issue, we will not be able to move the needle on the epidemic of firearm injury that is affecting our nation's youth,” said Ranney, who is also chief research officer for the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine. “The continued lack of federal funding to develop effective prevention and treatment strategies is disappointing, but not surprising to me.”
The researchers analyzed records from a wide range of federal research funding sources and catalogued grants given over a 10-year period to teams studying the major causes of death in children and teens. Using data on the causes of death of children and teens during this same time, they then compiled a dollars-per-death amount for each area of research.
Child-specific research on motor vehicle crashes — the top cause of death in U.S. young people — received an average of $88 million per year from 2008 to 2017. That equates to about $26,000 in research funding for each one of the 33,577 young people killed in a vehicle crash in that decade.
Meanwhile, research on pediatric cancer — the third leading cause of death in this age group — received $335 million per year. That’s $195,500 for each of the 17,111 child cancer deaths in the 10-year window.
During this same time, the federal government provided $1 million a year to fund research on firearm-related injuries, the second-leading cause of death among children and teens.
At $597 spent per death for the 20,719 young people who died from intentional and accidental firearm injuries in the years of the study, pediatric firearm research receives just 3.3% of the $37 million per year it would need to keep pace with research on other causes of death among American children.
Less funding means less new knowledge being generated through studies and evaluations, the researchers explained.
“This lack of knowledge does not result from the scientific questions or data being more difficult to research than they were for research on the molecular basis of cancer, polio prevention or motor vehicle crash prevention,” they wrote in the study. “Instead, it is because federal agencies have not invested in scientists seeking to discover answers to the key research questions about firearm injuries.”
Cunningham and Carter are two of the three co-directors, and Ranney a member, of the Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens Consortium, which in 2018 received a $5 million grant from the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development to support research and education.
“We know that when researchers study a health issue, and evaluate efforts to reduce its impact, the toll on individuals and society can drop,” Cunningham said. “This is a stark demonstration of the lack of support for research that could help reduce the chances that children will be hurt or killed by firearms.”
Carter said the goal of the study was “to illuminate the vast opportunity we have as a nation to study firearm-related issues in young people, and apply new knowledge to the problem, if more funding were made available.”
The authors suggest that the U.S. should create a national institute focused on firearm-related research.
“It's time for us to do better for our kids,” Ranney said.