ARUN RATH, HOST:
For the first time in nearly two decades, federal money is beginning to flow into gun violence research. And there's growing momentum behind creating a reliable national reporting database for firearm injuries and deaths. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, researchers hope to get a better picture of the scope of the problem so states can better focus their prevention programs.
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KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: At Los Angeles County-USC, one of the top trauma hospitals on the West Coast, Dr. Demetrios Demetriades is doing rounds in the ICU. Demetriades is the trauma director here. And he's particularly interested in a progress report on a man who was shot in the head the night before.
DEMETRIOS DEMETRIADES: The one last night - the gun shot injury?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: 1:30, 1:30. Next door.
DEMETRIADES: This one next door?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.
SIEGLER: Two men were actually shot in El Monte, a suburb east of here. They were first taken to the closest hospital. It wasn't a trauma center. One of the men died there. The other was transferred to this level one trauma center, where Demetriades and his team ended up saving him, though he'll likely have severe brain damage.
DEMETRIADES: So over there - you see the family over there. This is the case from last night.
SIEGLER: So we have two different patients, two different hospitals, two different outcomes. And only one case will get reported into the National Trauma Data Bank. The other man didn't die in a trauma hospital, so that fatality will likely never get reported to any national registry. And this highlights a serious problem. There are big gaps in what gets reported and what doesn't when it comes to gun violence.
DEMETRIADES: I think this is very important because firearm injuries is a huge medical problem in the country.
SIEGLER: Not knowing the full scope of the problem poses a challenge for Demetriades, who's also a professor of surgery at USC. He and other researchers are trying to better understand who's getting hurt and who's dying from gun violence - where and when and even why.
DEMETRIADES: And you'll be able to address the problem only if you have reliable information. Without reliable information, you cannot take the appropriate corrective action. You cannot allocate the sources as needed.
SIEGLER: So why isn't this information being collected? Logistics, for one - it's hard to get every single law enforcement agency, hospital, coroner in every city, in every state on the same page. And then consider that not every state requires everything to be reported. The other reasons - money and politics.
GAREN WINTEMUTE: For essentially the last 20 years, there has been almost no federal support for research on a health problem that kills upwards of 30,000 people a year.
SIEGLER: Garen Wintemute directs the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis. He's also an ER doc. Wintemute says since the mid-1990s, Congress has barred federal funds from going to gun violence research, linking it with gun control. But last year, a big change happened. By executive order, President Obama directed the CDC and other federal labs to resume the research and craft prevention strategies. Wintemute is encouraged.
WINTEMUTE: The best example I can give is what's been done with motor vehicle injuries. There are such data systems and have been for decades for motor vehicle injuries. And that sort of continuing flow of data has done a great deal to shape our efforts to prevent motor vehicle injuries.
SIEGLER: It remains to be seen if the same thing can be done for gun violence. But for starters, the CDC has begun offering more than $7 million in grants to states to expand the National Violent Death Reporting System. So the hope is that will also capture more data on firearm fatalities. One of the researchers who's helping spearhead this is Alex Crosby. He's an epidemiologist with the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
ALEX CROSBY: It gives them information so they can take action.
SIEGLER: So let's say, for example, a county is trying to figure out how to tackle the growing problem of suicide by firearms among older men. With access to detailed data, Crosby says, they could spot trends.
CROSBY: A job crisis in the past two weeks or an eviction foreclosure. These were some of the precipitating circumstances that involve that suicide. Now let's see what we can do to try to make our programs more focused on some of these risk factors. And hopefully we can make a difference in terms of bringing those kind of things down.
SIEGLER: Getting a nationwide database together is a huge task. And it's still very early. But Crosby says there've been some early successes. He hopes to one day expand the system from its current 32 states to all 50. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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