We have a problem. We all know we have a problem. Like everyone else in America I watched with despair as the news this week showed scores of people shot to death in Las Vegas. No one wants this. Everyone wants things to change.
And yet, it does not change. We have a mass shooting every day in this country. We watch innocent first graders cower in closets, wrapped in the arms of their teachers as some murderous demon slaughters them and we do nothing. We stare at the television, horror-struck, as concert-goers are mowed down by automatic weapons and we all agree it is a tragedy. But we do nothing.
Here’s a thought: why don’t we use scientific research to try to shape our public policy most effectively? Why don’t we study empirical evidence about what works and doesn’t work to reduce gun violence in our society?
And here’s an answer. We don’t, because if you try to use federal funds allocated for injury prevention to study gun violence, you will be marched out and shot by the NRA.
Ok, not really. But there is a story behind why the American government spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year studying food safety and traffic safety and even cigarettes, while spending virtually nothing on gun safety.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, an ER doctor named Arthur Kellerman published a series of epidemiological articles in the New England Journal of Medicine that caused an immediate, uh, firestorm. Among other things, Dr. Kellerman’s research indicated that for every self-defense homicide via firearm, there were 43 suicides, criminal homicides, or accidental gunshot deaths in the U.S. He followed that up with other studies indicating that having a firearm in the home was associated with an increased risk of homicide in that same home, at least in certain cities.
The response? The NRA lost its collective mind. They were outraged—outraged!— that such flawed, terrible studies had ever been published, and so they commissioned further research from the CDC in an attempt to more accurately and scientifically evaluate the issue. Ha! Just kidding. They did no such thing. What they actually did was this: they got a Republican congressman from Arkansas to insert a rider into a federal omnibus spending bill mandating that 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. Then they enlisted Republicans in Congress to snatch millions previously allocated to gun research and assign it to something else.
Let that sink in: funds to study INJURY PREVENTION could not be used to promote gun control, even if the scientific evidence clearly demonstrated its effectiveness.
If you want to get a scientific answer to anything related to firearm violence, you’ll likely have to pay for it in the private sphere. Politicians who propose funding such an atrocity are targeted and harassed by the NRA. Meanwhile, the politicians who throttle legislation to study firearm violence receive massive contributions from the NRA (looking at you, Mitch McConnell!) The research has almost completely stopped. (The NIH did fund some programs after Sandy Hook, when President Obama argued that research was not the same as advocacy, but apparently that program stopped accepting new applications this January.)
This is all unbelievably stupid and unbelievably corrupt. We have an agency doing its best to suppress any attempt to learn the truth about gun violence because they are terrified that the truth might not coincide with their ideology. And they are aided at every turn by politicians who accept money from them. Why do we accept this?
We do not know how to best reduce gun violence because we’ve often been prevented from studying it. We know that homicide rates via gun violence rise and fall at specific times and specific places, but we cannot effectively evaluate why.
I believe in scientific study. I believe that some things are true and some things are not true and we have valid ways to try to distinguish between the two. Is the scientific method perfect? No. Is it a better way to acquire knowledge than tweets, memes and unverifiable internet stories? Yes. We still need actual research.
All this is NOT to say that firearms should be banned. (I personally want a gun, although my reasons probably differ from those of most gun owners.) I support the Second Amendment, as do most Americans. I also support reasonable gun restrictions, as do most Americans. As an ER doctor, I can attest that there is a downside to allowing people with poor impulse control access to deadly weapons, but perhaps that is the price we pay for freedom. However, I want to draw the line somewhere. There are very few of us who would be okay with handing out guns to anyone, no questions asked. I don’t like government regulations being applied to me any more than the next person, but I accept them as the price of living in a functional society. The question is: without banning guns altogether, which regulations are most effective?
I am standing up to publicly declare: I will not vote for any politician, ever again, who takes money from the NRA. I will not vote for any politician, ever again, who tries to suppress research into gun violence. Let our scientists evaluate the facts, and then perhaps you can convince me that fewer gun regulations will make me safer. If lax gun laws actually make us less safe, then own it. Let’s work together to figure out which restrictions we can accept.
But don’t try to block the research because someone giving you money is afraid to learn the truth.