The gun lobby’s war against facts

    The Obama administration has struck a blow for factual reality, and foiled the gun lobby’s longstanding campaign for censorship.


    The language in Executive Order No. 14, signed by the president yesterday, seems innocuous – it compels “the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence” – but its impact is huge. Since 1996, the CDC has been essentially barred by law from financing or conducting studies that would determine, via empirical evidence, whether guns in homes actually make people safer, or whether they increase the at-home risk of homicide and suicide. The gun lobby opposed that kind of research. Therefore, the research was prohibited – courtesy of the gun lobby’s fans in Congress.

    This war against facts has long been a scandal, although few people have paid it much attention – until now. Thanks to the efforts of the gun lobby, there are very few gun violence experts in America. And there are precious few scientific studies. Gun violence sparks an average of 85 fatalities each day in this country, yet, broadly speaking, we don’t know what we don’t know. For that, we can thank the NRA and the allied pressure groups that flex D.C. muscle for the gun manufacturers.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Last week, as Joe Biden was readying the president’s gun reform agenda, he received a letter signed by 100 criminal, medical, and public health researchers. I need not annotate it: “The tragedy of gun violence is compounded by the fact that the usual methods of addressing a public health and safety threat of this magnitude – collection of basic data, scientific inquiry, policy formation, policy analysis and rigorous evaluation – are, because of politically-motivated constraints, extremely difficult in the area of firearm research.”

    Why, perchance, was the gun lobby so fearful of basic data and scientific inquiry back in the early ’90s? Duh.

    In 1992 and 1993, a team of respected gun research experts – financed and sponsored by the CDC – concluded that keeping guns in the home actually increased the risk of homicide and suicide in the home. The studies were published in the New England Journal of Medicine (homicide study, here). The gun lobby freaked out. The studies flatly contradicted the lobby’s contention that guns in homes make people safer.

    The gun manufacturers freaked out, too. If word got around that gun-owning households were less safe – and, worse yet, if future researchers came to that same conclusion – gun manufacturers might sell fewer guns. And since the abiding goal is to increase revenue and maximize profits, the solution back then was obvious. Future gun violence research had to be squelched.

    And so it was. Just as the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control was starting to amass good information, thanks to those two studies, the entire effort was shut down. The gun lobby enlisted its pals in the newly elected Republican Congress (natch), and the deed was done. In 1996, the NRA’s main man in the House, a southern Republican (natch), sponsored a measure that successfully stripped out all the money the CDC was spending on gun violence research. Plus, this language was enacted: “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.”

    In theory, the CDC could have protested the language, by insisting that its gun violence researchers were not seeking to “advocate or promote” anything, that in truth they were just doing their scientific best to go where the data was leading them. But that didn’t happen. In reality, the congressional move had a chilling effect. The agency simply shied away from doing any further research. Some private foundations tried to pick up the slack for awhile, but not early at the same funding level.

    (Gun violence research at the National Institutes of Health has also been suppressed, thanks to NRA lobbying. As the letter to Biden pointed out, the NIH has financed a grand total of three gun studies in the last 40 years. During that time span, four million people have been killed by guns. Only 2000 people have been killed in that time by infectious diseases – according to the letter’s signees – yet the NIH has financed 500 studies of those diseases.)

    The upshot of the gun lobby’s despicable war against facts is that firearms researchers have been barred from asking and answering the most basic questions. Much like Big Tobacco, which freaked out when independent scientists discovered the links between nicotine and addiction, the gun lobby fears any information that might undercut the allure of its consumer product. Fortunately, Obama’s executive order is a long-overdue victory for freedom of information.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1



    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal