Posted by AzBlueMeanie:
The New York Times in an editorial opinion today makes the point that What We Don’t Know Is Killing Us:
In one of the 23 executive orders on gun control signed this month, President Obama instructed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal science agencies to conduct research into the causes and prevention of gun violence. He called on Congress to aid that effort by providing $10 million for the C.D.C. in the next budget round and $20 million to expand the federal reporting system on violent deaths to all 50 states, from the current 18.
That Mr. Obama had to make such a decree at all is a measure of the power of the gun lobby, which has effectively shut down government-financed research on gun violence for 17 years. Research on guns is crucial to any long-term effort to reduce death from guns. In other words, treat gun violence as a public health issue.
But that is precisely what the National Rifle Association and other opponents of firearms regulation do not want. In the absence of reliable data and data-driven policy recommendations, talk about guns inevitably lurches into the unknown, allowing abstractions, propaganda and ideology to fill the void and thwart change.
The research freeze began at a time when the C.D.C. was making strides in studying gun violence as a public health problem. Before that, the issue had been regarded mainly as a law enforcement challenge or as a problem of disparate acts by deranged offenders, an approach that remains in sync with the N.R.A. worldview.
Public health research emphasizes prevention of death, disability and injury. It focuses not only on the gun user, but on the gun, in much the same way that public health efforts to reduce motor vehicle deaths have long focused on both drivers and cars.
The goal is to understand a health threat and identify lifesaving interventions. At their most basic, gun policy recommendations would extend beyond buying and owning a gun (say, background checks and safe storage devices) to manufacturing (childproofing and other federal safety standards) and distribution (stronger antitrafficking laws), as well as educating and enlisting parents, physicians, teachers and other community leaders to talk about the risks and responsibilities of gun ownership.
But by the early 1990s, C.D.C. gun research had advanced to the point that it contradicted N.R.A. ideology. Some studies found, for example, that people living in a home with a gun were not safer; they faced a significantly elevated risk of homicide and suicide.
The N.R.A. denounced the research as “political opinion masquerading as medical science,” and in 1996, Congress took $2.6 million intended for gun research and redirected it to traumatic brain injury. It prohibited the use of C.D.C. money “to advocate or promote gun control.” Since then, similar prohibitions have been imposed on other agencies, including the National Institutes of Health.
Technically, the prohibition is not a ban on all research, but the law has cast a pall that even prominent foundations and academic centers cannot entirely overcome. That is in part because comprehensive public health efforts require systematic data gathering and analysis, the scale and scope of which is a government undertaking. To understand and prevent motor vehicle deaths, for instance, the government tracks more than 100 variables per fatal crash, including the make, model and year of the vehicles, the speed and speed limit, the location of passengers, seat belt use and air bag deployment.
Guns deaths do not get such scrutiny. That does not mean we do not know enough to act. The evidence linking gun prevalence and violent death is strong and compelling; international comparisons are also instructive.
But we need more data to formulate, analyze and evaluate policy to focus on what works and to refine or reject what does not. How many guns are stolen? How do guns first get diverted into illegal hands? How many murderers would have passed today’s background checks? What percentage of criminal gun traces are accounted for by, say, the top 5 percent of gun dealers? How many households possess firearms: is it one-third as some surveys suggest, or one-half?
The gun lobby is likely to claim that any federally financed gun research, per se, is banned by law, a charge that would force debate of whether evidence-based policy recommendations are tantamount to lobbying. Or the C.D.C. may choose to focus on data collection and leave the policy recommendations to outside researchers. That would be a sorry situation for government scientists, but an improvement over the status quo.
It is obvious that gun violence is a public health threat. A letter this month to Vice President Joseph Biden Jr.’s gun violence commission from more than 100 researchers in public health and related fields pointed out that mortality rates from almost every major cause of death have declined drastically over the past half century. Motor vehicle deaths per mile driven in America have fallen by more than 80 percent. But the homicide rate in the United States, driven by guns, is almost exactly the same as it was in 1950.