More than a decade after Congress cut funding for firearms research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), another federal health agency has been spending millions of dollars to study such topics as whether teenagers who carry firearms run a different risk of getting shot compared with suffering other sorts of injuries.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also has been financing research to investigate whether having many liquor stores in a neighborhood puts people at greater risk of getting shot.
Such studies are coming under sharp scrutiny by Republican lawmakers who question whether the money could be better spent on biomedical research at a time of increasing competition for NIH funding. They're also leery of NIH research relating to firearms in general, recalling how 13 years ago the House voted to cut CDC funding when critics complained that the agency was trying to win public support for gun control.
"It's almost as if someone's been looking for a way to get this study done ever since the Centers for Disease Control was banned from doing it 10 years ago," Rep. Joe L. Barton, Texas Republican, said of one of the NIH studies. "But it doesn't make any more sense now than it did then."
The NIH, which administers more than $30 billion in taxpayer funds for medical research, defended the grants.
"Gun related violence is a public health problem - it diverts considerable health care resources away from other problems and, therefore, is of interest to NIH," Don Ralbovsky, NIH spokesman, wrote in an e-mail responding to questions about the grants.
"These particular grants do not address gun control; rather they deal with the surrounding web of circumstances involved in many violent crimes, especially how alcohol policy may reduce the public health burden from gun-related injury and death," he said. Mr. Barton and Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, first questioned the NIH about the gun-related grants in a letter Friday to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins.
The letter sought information about grants for current projects and for others starting as far back as 2002, totaling nearly $5 million. The lawmakers called the study of criminal behavior "a laudable endeavor which consistently benefits the American people, often in ways that people do not see."
"And yet we have trouble understanding the administration's desire to spend, for example, $642,561 in taxpayer funds to learn how inner-city teenagers whose friends, acquaintances and peers carry firearms and drink alcohol on street corners could show up in emergency rooms with gunshot wounds.
"The day-follows-night quality of this question and its potential answer simply do not seem to justify the expense that would be borne by people who work and pay their taxes," the lawmakers wrote.
Special interests on both sides of the gun-control issue differ on the question of whether the NIH ought to be conducting firearms-related research.
"This kind of research does concern us, and we're going to be watching it closely," said Erich Pratt, a spokesman for the Gun Owners Association of America. "You'd think that after the CDC had their money revoked, we wouldn't be dealing with this."
But Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Republican lawmakers were "blaming the messenger" by criticizing the research.
"Burying the evidence is what the gun lobby is best at," he said. "Whether the members of Congress like it or not, gun violence is a public health problem in America today."
NIH records show that one study being questioned by lawmakers aimed to "investigate whether adolescents who consume alcohol and/or carry firearms, and/or whose daily activities occur in surroundings rich in alcohol and/or firearms, face a differential risk of being shot with a firearm or injured in a non-gun assault."
A separate study on child safety looked at the decision-making process by couples on whether to own firearms, in part trying to identify whether women are less supportive of firearms compared with their partners.
The questions about whether the NIH should fund such research are being raised more than a decade after the House voted against restoring $2.6 million to the CDC's budget, money that the agency was spending on gun studies. The move, backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), was made after Republicans and some Democrats complained that the CDC was pushing for gun control.
The money was eventually restored to the CDC budget but with a spending restriction that has remained in place ever since, mandating that funds cannot be used "in whole or in part to advocate or promote gun control."
Mr. Barton and Mr. Walden, both of whom have received political contributions from the NRA over the years, requested more information on the NIH firearms research funding a month after they separately raised questions about several other NIH grants.
Their earlier letter to the NIH cited questions about grants that "do not seem to be of the highest scientific rigor," including one on whether participating on dragon-boat paddling teams helped cancer survivors more than taking part in an organized walking program.