With Funding in Scant Supply, a Grantmaker Steps up Big Time for Gun Violence Research

Janos Rautonen/shutterstock

Janos Rautonen/shutterstock

As a major cause of death in the U.S., gun violence is chronically under-researched. When Congress passed the Dickey Amendment in 1996, federal funding for gun violence research all but dried up—not that it amounted to much before that. According to one recent study, gun research receives a minuscule 1.6 percent of what might be expected given research spending on comparable public health threats. 

The fact that this long-term underinvestment is rooted in politics needs little explanation. But despite federal deadlock on meaningful gun reform, a tentative upswing in research funding is taking place. And Arnold Ventures—the philanthropy of retired hedge funder John Arnold and his wife Laura—has become a big part of that story. “This may be a time in this country when we’re at an inflection point. With repeated investments, we could improve public safety,” said Jeremy Travis, executive vice president for criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. 

Joining longtime funders like Michael Bloomberg, Arnold Ventures has become one of the largest private donors to gun violence research, putting forward a $20 million commitment last year. Administered by the RAND Corporation and entirely funded—as of right now—by a five-year gift from Arnold, the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research rolled out its first RFP cycle this January.

According to Travis, the events at Parkland were a prime factor in the Arnolds’ decision to dive into gun violence research. “Laura and John wanted to have greater impact in the criminal justice field, and it was a bracing experience to listen to the Parkland students. It was a poignant call to action,” he said. In a recent tweet, John Arnold pointed to the vast gaps in knowledge about the pervasive problem of gun violence: “I’ve been surprised by two things: how little causal evidence exists linking specific policies to a reduction in harms, and how many high-quality research proposals exist that are worthy of funding.”

The Arnolds have always been fans of evidence-based policy. To see them take on gun violence research makes sense, given Arnold Ventures’ ongoing focus on criminal justice reform. But as Travis tells it, the organization took special care to ensure that despite this funder’s nonpartisan stance, the research would be seen as credible and objective. 

That desire is what drew Arnold Ventures toward RAND, a think tank with a reputation for political objectivity. Sweetening the deal, RAND has been operating a gun violence research initiative since 2016. Called Gun Policy in America, the program previously drew its funding from unrestricted philanthropic grants to RAND and other operations income. Since June of 2018, Arnold’s grant has sustained the program. 

Arnold hopes its sizable commitment to the new collaborative will be more than matched by other funders; the goal is to raise $50 million overall for this work. Travis said that Arnold Ventures is currently in discussions with other funders, but major announcements are still pending. In the meantime, the foundation has been active in D.C., advocating for the restoration of federal research funding for gun violence. “Restoring research is high on the new Democratic Congress’ list of priorities,” Travis said, “And we’re encouraged by that.”

“As Transparent as Possible”

So how does the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research work? Despite Arnold’s position as sole supporter, the funder has no role in deciding which research projects get money. That’s up to a research advisory committee made up of 12 policy experts, academics, medical professionals and law enforcement officials chaired by Frank M. Clark, president of the Chicago Board of Education and former CEO of ComEd. 

Discussions between Arnold Ventures and the leadership at RAND resulted in a decision to leave actual researchers off of the advisory committee. “We didn’t want it to appear that this is researchers funding researchers. We wanted national leaders who’ve worked on topics related to gun violence,” Travis said.

The collaborative’s first RFP, issued in January, reflected months of prep work during the latter half of 2018. “RAND thought long and hard about operating principles, and how the funding should be used,” Travis said. “There was a desire to be as transparent as possible.” Toward that end, the collaborative has published both its RFP and a detailed operational plan laying out parameters for how this funding will be awarded. 

Throughout this process, both Arnold and RAND have done what they can to avoid the appearance of political bias. Early on, the advisory committee held listening sessions with some of the largest organizations in the gun space, including groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and March for Our Lives—as well as the NRA. Research, Travis said, can be a common ground for people on all sides of the gun policy debate. That’s a laudable stance, and one that other projects like WAMU’s Guns & America reporting project have adopted—with support from the Kendeda Fund and others.

Still, it’s easy to doubt whether any effort on guns, even one centered on gathering objective facts, can cultivate much agreement on an issue that’s long been a polarizing flashpoint. But the research community, at least, seems ready to go all-in. Within the first few weeks after RAND released its RFP, the think tank received around 250 responses from researchers amounting to over $150 million worth of work—much more than the collaborative could fund, even with another $30 million in philanthropic commitments. 

RAND staff and the advisory committee are currently reviewing the proposals. At this point, Travis expects 10 to 20 projects will be funded, with the announcement going out this June or July. The cycle will then repeat in January of next year.

A Question of Narrative

The scale of Arnold’s commitment places it well above other recent philanthropic gifts to support gun violence research. But this is a growing area. Research is a major agenda item for the Fund for a Safer Future (FSF), the leading grantmaker collaborative for this issue. FSF members include the Joyce Foundation, the Kendeda Fund, the David Bohnett Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation—all of which have been active in the guns space.

Then there’s the Hope and Heal Fund, a funder-led anti-violence effort centered on California that has drawn support from the California Wellness Foundation, Liberty Hill, the Blue Shield of California Foundation, the California Endowment, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Akonadi Foundation, and others. 

In their names, both FSF and the Hope and Heal Fund highlight some of the messaging strategies these funders are using to change the narrative—that it’s about safety, not “control,” for instance, or that gun violence should be treated as a public health crisis (the majority of gun deaths are suicides).

In funding the collaborative at RAND, Arnold Ventures is underscoring that, whatever else one may think, gun violence is a problem the public needs to better understand. On its website, the collaborative says it’s looking to produce “nonpartisan, scientific research that offers the public and policymakers a factual basis for developing fair and effective gun policies.” Potentially, this research could be used by people with a range of agendas, including gun rights advocates who have often argued that measures to restrict access to firearms are unlikely to lower the death toll from gun violence.

The new collaborative still has a long way to go on the fundraising front. However the pace of funder commitments shapes up, one thing is clear: interest is on the rise. The Parkland tragedy, in particular, has encouraged more funders to step up. And as the collaborative’s first RFP cycle shows, there is great hunger for dollars in the research community. As Arnold Ventures takes steps to bring in other grantmakers, this is a space to watch.