Congress and the NRA Suppressed Research on Gun Violence

The state of the universe.
Dec. 19 2012 5:38 PM

How Congress Blocked Research on Gun Violence

The ugly campaign by the NRA to shut down studies at the CDC.

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PT: Do other countries fund research on gun violence, and can we use their data?

GW: I have read many studies over the years of firearm violence in other countries that have been funded by their governments. The findings of those studies are useful here, with the usual caveats about demographic and societal differences. The science is solid.

PT: Have you experienced personal attempts at intimidation for your research? How about colleagues?

GW: I won’t speak for colleagues. The president of one of the largest handgun manufacturers in the country once told me, face to face, how much money he had committed to an intimidation effort and advised me to keep my life insurance paid up. There was a time when federal law enforcement agents recommended that I wear a ballistic vest. There is a wanted poster on the Internet.

PT: What does the best research tell us about ways to limit gun violence in this country?

GW: It tells us that no one intervention is sufficient, but that an array of measures are effective, in different ways. We can set meaningful restrictions on who should have firearms, particularly when comprehensive background checks are in place. We can limit where and how firearms may be used, and what firearms should be owned by civilians. We can map and disrupt criminal firearm markets.

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PT: What are some of the biggest gaps between what the research tells us and what the American public believes to be true about guns?

GW: Here are 3 important myths:

1) Rates of firearm violence are decreasing. In fact, overall mortality from firearm violence has remained absolutely steady for a decade, after decreasing from the early 1990s to about 2001.

2) Criminals can’t legally buy guns. Felons and persons convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors can’t. But others with a long history of misdemeanor crimes such as assault and battery, resisting arrest, and brandishing a weapon can buy all the firearms they want. So can alcohol abusers.

3) Nothing can be done because so many guns are in civilian hands. There are a great many firearms in the United States (perhaps 250 million to 300 million), but most of them are not in circulation. Many studies have shown that new guns figure disproportionately in crime, and we know both from research and decades of law enforcement work that effective interventions can be taken, no matter how many guns there are.

PT: If you sat on an NIH panel to fund firearm violence prevention, what projects do you think need public funding? What are the biggest gaps in the science?

GW: Actually, I did sit on such a panel, a National Institute of Justice Working Group, in November 2011. The group’s recommendations are here.

I would emphasize studies that evaluate interventions and randomized trials where those are feasible.

PT: There has been a history in this country of attacks on scientists for publishing research on topics—tobacco, climate change, chemicals—that is unpopular with certain political interests. What are your thoughts on this and your advice to young scientists venturing into these areas?

GW: This one is easy, and thanks for asking. If you love the science and believe the questions matter, do the research. The rest will all work out.

Paul D. Thacker is a former Senate investigator. He is a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, where he is working on a book about the lives of congressional staffers. Follow him on Twitter.

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