One of the most disturbing aspects about our national debate over gun safety and gun violence is that we know so little about these important topics.
Our ignorance is no accident. From 1986 to 1996, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sponsored high-quality peer-reviewed research into the underlying causes of gun deaths and injuries. When the findings of a research project of the CDC contradicted the preferred messages of the National Rifle Association and the firearms industry, their congressional supporters swung into action to silence the agency.
In 1996, Representative Jay Dickey, then a Republican from Arkansas, introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill that stripped the Center of $2.6 million of funding, the exact amount the agency had spent on firearm injury research during the previous year. Even more chilling, the amendment dictated 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.”
Although this phrase might have been open to interpretation, its intent was clear: gun research was off limits. This ban was later imposed on all Department of Health and Human Services agencies as well.
No other industry has had this form of Congressional protection against research that could potentially improve the safety and health of the American people. I doubt that we would be as complacent if Congress were shielding the petroleum industry from research on oil spills; the tobacco industry from research on the health effects of smoking; or the pharmaceutical industry from research on drug side effects. Injury prevention research can have real and lasting consequences. During the last 20 years, for example, the American Medical Association reports that the number of Americans dying in traffic deaths has decreased by 31 percent due to research-inspired interventions, such as seat belts, child seats, a minimum drinking age, motorcycle helmets and air bags. In 2015 for the first time, gun-related fatalities are likely to surpass deaths from automobile collisions.
Although the American public has clearly not benefited from the 17-year suppression of gun research, we know who has. American firearm manufacturers are expected to earn nearly $1 billion in profits this year. It is an industry that thrives on uncertainty, fear and a lack of empirical evidence. For example, heated rhetoric around the election in November and the Newtown shootings in December 2012 contributed to a 41 percent spike in the number of NCIS firearm background checks requested over the same period in 2011. Background checks can be used as a proxy for the volume of gun sales through certified dealers.
Most gun owners are good citizens who lawfully exercise their constitutional right to firearms for hunting, recreation or personal safety. But guns also have symbolic meaning in our society, and too often the public debate focuses on what guns mean rather than what guns do.
The reality is that a gun is one of the few consumer products designed expressly to kill or simulate killing. A gun can be easily sold, lost, loaned or stolen; used by someone who is a criminal, angry, drunk or on drugs; and all too often a gun falls into the hands of a child or someone who is suicidal or mentally ill. That guns are effective at their intended purpose we see clearly in the staggering number of gun deaths and injuries that occur in America every day.
We need to recognize that a gun is impervious to our good intentions or to any meaning we project onto it. It is time for us to focus on what guns do rather than on what guns mean. We may look to former Congressman Dickey, who has reversed his opinion about the research ban he advocated in 1996. In his July 29, 2012, op-ed piece in the Washington Post written with Mark Rosenberg, the authors conclude: “Like motor vehicle injuries violence exists in a cause-and-effect world; things happen for predictable reasons. By studying the causes of a tragic — but not senseless — event, we can help prevent another.”
Whether or not we agree with President Obama’s entire gun proposal released Wednesday, we should support his reinstatement of federal research and the allocation of funding to produce unimpeachable findings on gun safety and gun violence. Absent that research effort, we will continue to rely on information that is incomplete, biased and inaccurate, which guarantees — as the old saying goes — that we will continue to be shooting in the dark.
Linda Jack lives in Grass Valley.
We need to recognize that a gun is impervious to our good intentions or to any meaning we project onto it. It is time for us to focus on what guns do rather than on what guns mean.