The scandalous suppression of gun violence research

     A woman visits a makeshift memorial near the road leading to Umpqua Community College Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. Armed with multiple guns, Chris Harper Mercer, 26, walked in a classroom at the community college, Thursday, and opened fire, killing several and wounding several others. (AP Photo/John Locher)

    A woman visits a makeshift memorial near the road leading to Umpqua Community College Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. Armed with multiple guns, Chris Harper Mercer, 26, walked in a classroom at the community college, Thursday, and opened fire, killing several and wounding several others. (AP Photo/John Locher)

    In the midst of President Obama’s denunciation of gun violence — if you’ve lost track, the latest massacre was on Friday — he lamented Washington’s ongoing inertia and said that, in fact, “we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially prevent gun deaths.”

    If you heard that remark, you may well have wondered, “Wait a sec. Congress blocks the collection of gun data? Really? Things can’t be that bad. Obama must’ve made that up.”

    Nope, he didn’t make that up. The statutory suppression of gun violence research — via the withholding of federal funds — has been the law of the land for the last 19 years, courtesy of the gun lobby and its congressional servants.

    We don’t know whether, or to what extent, universal background checks, or more vigilant mental health measures, would reduce gun violence; we don’t even know how often Americans successfully use their guns for self-protection as opposed to aggression because federal money for research has virtually dried up since the mid-’90s. It’s bad enough that, statistically, we’re by far the most violent country in the western world; it’s doubly scandalous that we starve scientific inquiry.

    In fact, this past June, the House Republicans voted yet again to bar the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting gun violence research. The CDC has been barred since 1996, the National Institute of Health and other federal health agencies have been barred since 2011 — and this censorship won’t be lifted in the foreseeable future because, as Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole said in June, “We don’t think this [research] is the appropriate forum for a debate over the Second Amendment.”

    You have to wonder: If the gun lobby is so confident about their Freedom arguments, about the deterrent value of universal gun use, then why are they so afraid of science?

    Here’s the NRA’s answer (such as it is): “These junk science studies and others like them are designed to provide ammunition for the gun control lobby by advancing the false notion that legal gun ownership is a danger to the public health instead of an inalienable right.” Therefore, scientific inquiry shall continue to be suppressed.

    And because the NRA cracks the whip in Congress, its opinion trumps the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics — all of which believe that maybe, just maybe, guns are a danger to public health (11,000 gun homicides a year, or 30 a day), and that maybe we should devote federal funds to investigate that further.

    No other research topic has been singled out for this kind of suppression. It started in ’95 when the CDC was studying whether there was a link between the increasing prevalence of guns and the increasing incidents of gun violence. The NRA’s Republican factotums dutifully erased all the CDC funding earmarked for that research in ’96. CDC director David Satcher promptly issued a prescient warning: “Here is a prescription for inaction on a major cause of death and disability. Here is a [policy] that not only casts doubt on the ability of scientists to conduct research involving controversial issues, but also raises basic questions about the ability, fundamental to democracy, to have honest, searching public discussions of such issues.”

    Technically, the law doesn’t literally ban federal gun research — the language reads, “None of the funds … may be used to advocate or promote gun control” — but the chilling effect has been obvious. The CDC won’t touch the gun issue, fearing that the gun lobby will frame any and all research as “advocacy,” and fearing that the NRA’s Republican pals will retaliate by cutting the CDC budget even further. Understandably, none of the public health agencies are willing to stick their necks out.

    In a 2013 letter to the Obama administration, more than 100 scientists — health researchers, doctors, criminologists, and others — framed the core problem:

    “The total costs of gun violence to American society are on the order of $100 billion per year. The tragedy of gun violence is compounded by the fact that the usual methods for 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 …. While mortality rates from almost every major cause of death declined dramatically over the past half century, the homicide rate in America today is almost exactly the same as it was in 1950.”

    And if the CDC and NIH bans aren’t scandalous enough, check this out: The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) used to publicly identify the most notorious gun dealers, the ones who flouted the laws and sold heavily to criminals. But thanks to a House amendment introduced in 2003 by a Kansas Republican, the ATF has been barred these last 12 years from releasing that kind of data. The ATF can still collect the data; it just can’t tell us who the bad dealers are. I guess because of Freedom.

    This is the issue — suppression, censorship, secrecy — that Obama referenced in his passing remark. And he asked, “How can that be?” But he knows how, as do we.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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