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Editor’s Note: Mark L. Rosenberg is president emeritus of The Task Force for Global Health. He oversaw the development of the public health approach to violence prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), serving as assistant surgeon general and founding director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control until 1999. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

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During the first Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked what she would do to solve the problem of gun violence. The candidates stood on a stage less than 50 miles from Parkland, Florida, where 17 people died in a school shooting last year.

Warren replied that she would support more research into the problem and approach gun violence as the true public health crisis that it is.

This was a great response, but I suspect that many people didn’t have a clue why she would think the answer is research. They may understand why research is important for finding solutions to cancer or heart disease, but gun violence? Really?

Mark L. Rosenberg
Courtesy Mark Rosenberg
Mark L. Rosenberg

Yes, really. Scientific research has produced solutions to some of the most life-threatening problems of our time. This approach has the power to get us out of the deadly morass of gun violence by finding solutions that both protect gun rights and reduce gun violence.

After all, research on motor vehicle deaths pointed the way to safer cars, safer roads and safer drivers. Over the last 50 years, these research discoveries have saved 600,000 lives, all without banning cars.

And in the area of cancer prevention and treatment, research has brought truly extraordinary advances in the form of immunotherapy and gene therapy.

If we want to make progress against gun violence, if we want our kids to be safe at school, at home and in our communities, we need research to answer four basic questions:

1. What is the problem? Who gets shot, where, when and how? What is the relationship between the shooter and victim? What kind of weapon was used and how was it obtained?

2. What are the causes? What is the role of robbery, gangs, alcohol, drugs, mental illness and domestic violence?

3. What works to prevent it? We will only know if something works once we do the research and test it. And to say something “works,” we need to measure two separate things: the degree to which it reduces gun violence, and the degree to which it infringes on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

4. How do you do it? How do you take those interventions that have been shown to work and translate them into legislation and programs that can be scaled up?

We can only find solutions to these questions through scientific research. The hardest and most urgent question is “what works?” It is also the question we know the least about. The truth is that nobody knows whether banning the sale of semi-automatic rifles will prevent mass shootings. And nobody knows whether arming all teachers will save or take more lives.

It is appalling and quite frightening to see how little scientific evidence we do have for whether particular interventions work. A recent report, Gun Policy in America, by the Rand Corporation, shows that we lack strong evidence for how effective gun-control measures are, from bans on assault weapon sales to age-limits for gun purchases and licensing requirements. The strongest evidence found could only be termed “supportive,” and that was evidence to show effectiveness of child-access prevention laws in preventing unintentional firearm injuries and deaths among children.

What are we missing by not having more evidence of what works and what doesn’t? Just look at what science has delivered in the arena of life-saving cancer treatments.

For many types of cancer, people can be treated and expect to live a full life. Cancer research has produced, by a very conservative estimate, “the equivalent of giving about three extra years of life to every one of the estimated 600,000 Americans expected to die of cancer this year,” with an estimated cost of only $125 for each year of life saved. In public health terms, this is an extraordinarily good bargain.

The search for better cancer treatments is very much like the search for ways to prevent gun violence. The drugs we need to find for treating cancer must kill the tumor and protect the patient’s vital organs at the same time. These solutions are only found by conducting research and testing each one. This is the same for gun-violence prevention research: We have to find interventions that will both reduce gun violence and protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

But because the government invests about $5B per year in cancer research but invests little in gun-violence prevention research, we can tell patients what cancer treatments are safe and effective, but we can’t tell our lawmakers what policies are both safe and effective ways to prevent gun violence.

There is some excellent gun-violence prevention research going on right now, funded by private foundations, individuals and academic organizations, and a very small amount funded by the government. But overall, gun-violence research has essentially ground to a halt while gun-rights advocates and gun-control advocates fight each other instead of fighting the problem of gun violence.

The federal government essentially stopped funding gun violence prevention research after 1996, when Congress passed the Dickey Amendment and took away funding for gun research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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  • Because gun violence is so polarized and so polarizing an issue, we need hard evidence about what will work to prevent gun violence and protect gun rights. We need hard evidence to show that research is not a plot to take guns away from law-abiding gun owners. We need evidence to show lawmakers what programs and policies will be safe and effective.

    With that evidence, gun control and gun rights advocates can unite. With that evidence, we can make progress toward the goals that we all want: keeping our children, our veterans and our communities safe while protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners at the same time. Research is also our best way to counter fatalism — our biggest threat in this arena — because it reminds us that there are new ways forward to be discovered and reasons to remain hopeful for a safer tomorrow.