U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky is restarting the agency's discontinued gun violence research program, expanding the bureaucracy's mission beyond controlling and preventing infectious disease to include studying what President Joe Biden has called a "gun violence public health epidemic."
In an interview with CNN published Friday, Walensky called gun violence a "serious public health threat" and said "something has to be done about this."
According to CNN, an average of 200 people have been killed and 472 people were injured by guns each weekend this summer, not including suicides. The network's Gun Violence Archive reports more than 15,700 people in the U.S. have committed suicide with a firearm so far this year.
"I swore to the President and to this country that I would protect your health. This is clearly one of those moments, one of those issues that is harming America's health," Walensky said.
Under her direction, the agency is spending more than $2 million to fund an initiative that provides surveillance data in near-real time on emergency visits to the hospital for nonfatal firearm injuries. The CDC is tracking the intent of the injuries, whether they were intentionally self-directed (a suicide attempt), an unintentional accident, or related to an assault.
The CDC is also spending more than $8 million on 18 different studies to investigate gun violence and means of preventing injury from firearms.
Examples of those studies include looking at the effectiveness of a suicide awareness program in Colorado gun stores or studying whether a Vermont program to educate children about how to safely use and store firearms prevents injuries.
A 2015 study cited by CNN estimated that 4.6 million children in the U.S. lived with loaded and unlocked firearms in their households.
Walensky said that CDC funding for this research is meant to learn what causes gun violence, how widespread the issue is, and what means of prevention can be applied nationally to mitigate injury or death from firearms.
"My job is to understand and evaluate the problem, to understand the scope of the problem, to understand why this happens and what are the things that can make it better — to research that, to scale that up, to evaluate it and to make sure that we can integrate it into communities," she told CNN. "We have a lot of work to do in every single one of those areas because we haven't done a lot of work as a nation in almost any of them."
Walensky denies that the CDC is interested in advocating for gun control, going so far as to avoid using the word "gun," preferring the term "firearm" instead.
"Generally, the word gun, for those who are worried about research in this area, is followed by the word control, and that's not what I want to do here," she explained. "I'm not here about gun control. I'm here about preventing gun violence and gun death."
She told CNN that her hope is for gun owners and Second Amendment activists to cooperate with the CDC to promote gun safety and reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by firearms in the U.S. The CDC director was insistent that her programs are not about taking people's guns away.
"This is not a conversation about having them or not having them. This is a conversation about how we can make them being here safe," she said. "The research that we intend to do is going to be squarely about making America safe. Making people safe."
She invited gun owners to "come to the table. Join us in the conversation," telling them, "I want you to teach me what you have done to make your gun safe, and then I want you to teach everybody else."
"We cannot understand the research of firearm violence, firearm injury, without embracing wholeheartedly, the firearm owning community," she added. "I really do believe that the population of people who wants to own a gun doesn't want people hurt by them. The majority of the population does not want people hurt by them. I want them at the table."
Reached for comment, NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide said the organization has never been opposed to "legitimate research methods for serious studies into the dynamics of violent or firearm-related crime."
"We have, however, opposed the government funding of research designed to promote gun control," said Dalseide. "Unfortunately, given the Biden administration's history of hostility towards law-abiding gun owners, we fear any studies under Dir. Walensky's care will begin with a gun control conclusion and solely focus on data points designed and intended to support their cause."
In the 1990s, the NRA successfully lobbied Congress to cut the CDC's funding for gun violence research and implement a ban on further funding.
That ban was reversed in 2018, when Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that permitted the CDC to study gun violence. In the following year, Congress approved an agreement that gave $25 million to the CDC and the National Institutes of Health to research gun violence. At the time, Republican lawmakers criticized the effort as a means by which left-wing gun control activists would come up with scientific studies to claim that gun control is needed as a matter of public health to prevent injuries and deaths.
But the CDC has actually studied gun violence for years, despite the apparent ban on doing so. In 2013, President Barack Obama ordered the CDC to research gun violence following the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre.
The agency funded and published a report with findings that, contrary to the expectations of gun rights and gun control activists alike, did not support common claims made by the left regarding gun violence. The CDC found that using guns in self-defense is in fact a common occurrence, that gun buyback programs are not effective at reducing crime, and that there are "consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies."
Still, the fact that a federal agency designed to control and prevent infectious disease is expanding its mission to include researching gun violence will be controversial. The CDC on Thursday was rebuked for overreaching into issues that are barely related to public health when the Supreme Court struck down the agency's moratorium on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on 8/27/2021 at 5:12 p.m. ET to include comment from the NRA.