In the aftermath of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado and the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin and in Tucson and Fort Hood and Virginia Tech… America is having a long overdue conversation about gun violence. Both sides are making claims about the safety of gun ownership and whether guns make society more or less dangerous, and both sides are saying that the other side’s claims are false. What we need in a situation like this are some facts that can be verified. That’s where science comes in. That’s what science does. It asks questions, and then through research and experimentation finds answers.
The problem is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for scientists to do that in the gun debate. It’s not that there aren’t enough qualified scientists to do the research. It’s not that a scientifically vigorous study couldn’t be designed. We even have a government agency capable of studing the question. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) keeps track of all the ways that Americans die, disease, workplace accident, traffic fatality. You name it. They even publish a weekly Morbidity and Mortality report so that researchers can study those causes of death. The CDC even has a division called the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention (NCICP) that seems custom made to do the job.
The New York Times reported that back in the 1990s, a group of researchers with the NCICP tried to do just that. The scientists looked at whether the presence of a gun in the home increased or decreased the risk of violent death. After an extensive review, they concluded, “Results show that regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.”
Their results were unambiguous, so was the response from the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA accused the researchers of, “putting out papers that were really political opinion masquerading as medical science,” For that affront, the NRA demanded satisfaction and used its friends on Capitol Hill to get it.
A number of lawmakers with close ties to the NRA tried to eliminate the NCICP entirely. Fortunately, that failed, but they weren’t done. In 1996, an Arkansas Republican, Representative Jay Dickey managed to attach an amendment that stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, coincidentally, the exact amount the CDC had spent on gun safety research during the previous year. The money was eventually restored by the Senate, but it was stipulated that it would only be used for research on traumatic brain injury. In addition, language was inserted into the CDC appropriations bill stating, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The CDC already had specific rules that banned the use of CDC funds to lobbying, and no other area of research was or has been singled out like that, but the ban on research related in any way to gun control remains in effect to this day.
The CDC wasn’t the only source of funding for gun safety research, but it was the largest. The fierce and immediate backlash the CDC was hit with had a chilling effect on gun related research. Today, funding for gun research is approximately ¼ of what it was back in the 1990s. There are still some scientists researching the issue, but in the face of such opposition, the number of researches willing to stick their necks out is dwindling.
How are we supposed to find answers if we’re not even allowed to ask the question? How can we have a rational discussion without access to the facts? If this is allowed to continue, it threatens not only gun safety research, but the independence that science depends upon. If scientists can be cowed by special interests, then we have to question how far we’ve come since Galileo was threatened by the Inquisition for daring to question the status quo. If, on the other hand, we let the NRA and lawmakers know that there are people who value independent science and scientists who aren’t afraid to ask controversial questions, then perhaps we can have a rational discussion about guns based on facts and verifiable, reproducible data instead of lobbying and threats.