When President-elect Donald Trump nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for attorney general, critics pointed out the longtime senator’s reputation as an immigration hardliner and an opponent of drug policy reform. They noted he lost a 1986 nomination to be a federal judge following accusations of racism.
But Sessions’ track record on guns is another major sticking point for people invested in gun policy and safety― and, if he’s confirmed, there are concerns about what his tenure could mean for the future of gun violence research.
“He’s going to have the ear of the president of the United States on issues of criminal law and criminal justice and that’s exactly where America’s gun policy is centered,” Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law and author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, told The Huffington Post.
It doesn’t appear that Sessions has commented publicly on gun violence research specifically. But after President Barack Obama issued an executive order to expand background checks for gun purchases last January, Sessions responded with a statement declaring it isn’t “the proven method” for reducing deaths by firearms:
While President Obama lectures the nation on gun violence, and seeks to limit lawful Americans’ exercise of their constitutional rights, his Administration’s policies have let loose thousands of dangerous criminals onto America’s streets.
The proven method for saving the lives of innocent Americans is not disarming them. The proven method for saving the lives of innocent Americans is to arrest, prosecute, convict and jail criminal offenders, especially armed career criminals illegally using guns. This is the way to reduce gun violence.
The problem with Sessions’ argument is that no one ― including Sessions ― knows how to fix our nation’s gun violence problem. Despite his claim above, there simply isn’t enough research on firearms violence in America to know which prevention methods work and what factors contribute. That’s because gun violence research has been restricted in the U.S. since 1996, thanks to a National Rifle Association-backed law that had a silencing effect on federal research at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Due to the resulting lack of data, stricter “law and order” measures like those Sessions cited in his statement aren’t proven to reduce gun violence. Neither is restricting firearm access. Though some research is conducted in other countries, there’s little comparison: Americans own more guns per capita than any nation in the world and gun violence in the United States far outpaces gun violence in other developed countries.
But despite Sessions’ reputation as a hardliner, gun violence researchers who spoke to The Huffington Post seemed optimistic about the future. Gun violence research is scientific, not political, they said, and Sessions’ NRA backing shouldn’t preclude him from supporting it or advocating for it as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
A bipartisan research push serves Democrats and Republicans
“Research was painted into a corner as something people wanted to use to take away all their guns,” Dr. Mark Rosenberg, the former director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, told The Huffington Post. “We can’t afford to let this false dichotomy continue.”
Without sufficient research, making informed policy decisions is an exercise in guesswork.
“In a way, we have put Jeff Sessions and the members of Congress in a terrible position,” Rosenberg said. “We asked them to vote on measures of gun policy without being able to tell them whether it works or not.”
Rosenberg, who now serves as president and CEO of the nonprofit Task Force for Global Health, stressed that gun violence research ultimately serves everyone, legal gun owners and gun control advocates alike.
“There are going to be demands on [Sessions] to protect police officers from getting shot. He’s going to have to show that he can protect minorities,” Rosenberg said. “The only way he can solve these really hard questions is through research.”
Gun violence research doesn’t just serve gun control advocates
Gun violence is a public health crisis, according to the American Medical Association and other medical advocates, and deserves both investigation into its causes and evidence-based solutions. Unfortunately for researchers, there’s a history of Republican members of Congress conflating gun violence research with gun control advocacy.
“The CDC is there to look at diseases that need to be dealt with to protect the public health,” former Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) said at a press conference in 2015. “I’m sorry, but a gun is not a disease.”
It’s rhetoric like Boehner’s that polarizes apolitical firearms research.
“We never said guns were a disease,” said Charles Branas, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “There’s a huge difference between guns and gun violence. Gun violence is the outcome we’re trying to prevent. We’re not trying to prevent guns.”
“It’s just like being injured in a car crash,” he added, citing one of the many non-disease public health problems the CDC regularly studies. “No one is trying to prevent cars. This distinction needs to be brought out in a much clearer way.”
Branas pointed to research he published this month in the American Journal of Public Health that showed reducing urban blight like abandoned buildings and vacant lots significantly reduced firearm violence in Philadelphia between 1999 and 2013. Research like this shouldn’t be politicized just because it involves gun violence, Branas stressed.
“It’s apolitical by its very nature,” he said. “Scientists don’t study these disease outcomes — safety outcomes — for the pure generation of knowledge. We want to have an impact in reducing the problem.”
Firearm violence research is struggling field
Firearm violence research has a complicated and politicized history. After the NRA-backed Dickey Amendment passed in 1996, prohibiting the CDC from using federal funds to “advocate or promote gun control,” published research on gun violence plummeted 64 percent between 1998 and 2012.
It wasn’t an outright ban, but the amendment’s significant chilling effect on the field is still palpable two decades later. Weeks after the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, Obama issued an executive order calling on the CDC to “sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it.”
Unfortunately, the CDC hasn’t done much to reenter the field. Still, there have been a few promising developments elsewhere, including the establishment of a $5 million firearm violence research center at University of California, Davis, that was approved by a vote of the California legislature.
The NRA’s divisive influence on gun violence research
It’s unclear whether that research will continue to grow under a Trump-Sessions administration.
Over the course of Sessions’ nearly two-decade career in the Senate, the Alabama senator consistently voted against firearm reform measures such as background checks and voted for pro-gun measures including allowing firearms in checked baggage on Amtrak trains and prohibiting foreign aid that would restrict U.S. gun ownership. Those stances earned Sessions an ‘A’ rating from the NRA for his voting record in 2014.
Sessions did not respond to a request for comment on his position on gun violence research. His relationship with the NRA, which has consistently sought to politicize gun violence research as an anti-gun field of study, is worrisomely close. In addition to receiving at least $35,750 in contributions from the NRA while in office, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA endorsed Sessions as Trump’s attorney general pick on Nov. 22.
“Jeff Sessions is a champion of our Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement. “This nomination sends a strong message to Second Amendment supporters that he is serious about protecting our constitutional freedoms.”
It’s that NRA influence that Winkler fears.
“Jeff Sessions, who has an A rating from the NRA, might be expected to be more lax on enforcing the gun laws then we’ve seen under the previous administration,” he said.
One thing’s for sure: He’ll be making any such decisions with a severe lack of scientific input.