SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Research restrictions pushed by the National Rifle Association have stopped the United States from finding solutions to firearms violence, more than a hundred scientists from virtually every major U.S. university told Vice President Joe Biden's task force on gun violence in a letter on Thursday.
In the wake of the December school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, and other mass homicides, the group of economists, health researchers, educators, doctors and criminologists said funding should be restored to a range of study areas, from gun safety to tracking illegal guns.
President Barack Obama has asked Biden to head a task force to come up with gun policy proposals, and Biden was to meet with NRA representatives on Thursday. He said the task force will have recommendations ready for the president by Tuesday.
"While mortality rates from almost every major cause of death declined dramatically over the past half century, the homicide rate in America today is almost exactly the same as it was in 1950," the academics wrote in a letter organized by scholars at the University of Chicago Crime Lab research center.
"Politically-motivated constraints" left the nation "muddling through" a problem that costs American society on the order of $100 billion per year, it said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control has cut firearms safety research by 96 percent since the mid-1990s, according to one estimate. Congress, pushed by the gun lobby, in 1996 put restrictions on CDC funding of gun research into the budget. Restrictions on other agencies were added in later years.
The NRA, the main lobbyist for gun rights, has taken credit for the research halt. "These junk science studies and others like them are designed to provide ammunition for the gun control lobby by advancing the false notion that legal gun ownership is a danger to the public health instead of an inalienable right," it said in 2011.
Research into links between teenagers' use of guns and alcohol, and firearm storage practices, were examples the gun rights group cited, arguing that the studies were meant to show gun ownership was a "disease."
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment ahead of the letter's release.
A political fight over firearms research has waxed and waned for years. Public health researchers began digging into gun violence in the late 1980s as homicides surged. By 1996, the NRA and allies had concluded that the work was producing "anti-gun propaganda."
Congress in 1996 nearly cut the CDC budget by $2.6 million, the amount the agency spent on firearms research at the time, researchers say. The funds were later restored, but a restriction was added to the budget and remains.
"None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control," the budget read.
Similar language was added to the budget in 2011 for the National Institute of Health and other federal health agencies.
Officials have largely pulled the plug on gun research.
A forthcoming study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's group, estimates that CDC funding for such research was cut to $100,000 a year in 2009-2012 from an average of $2.5 million, in current dollars, in 1992-1996.
Gun related studies as a percentage of total peer-reviewed research dropped 60 percent, the mayors' group estimates.
"Scientific inquiry in this field has been systematically starved, and as a result almost no one does it," said emergency room physician and University of California, Davis, professor Garen Wintemute, who signed the letter. He estimated that there were fewer than a dozen researchers in the country whose primary commitment was to firearm violence prevention.
Separate federal actions have stopped federal law enforcement officials from collecting, keeping and distributing gun ownership data. Wintemute said that made it much more difficult to effectively study gun trafficking.
Without the research, there is no clear evidence of what to do to curb gun-related violence, the scientists said. Gun rights advocates put the matter differently, saying there is no evidence that gun control works.
The letter will be available on the University of Chicago Crime Lab's Web site, http://crimelab.uchicago.edu.
(Reporting By Peter Henderson; Editing by Martin Howell and Vicki Allen)