After the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, calls for gun-control legislation have begun. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said on NBC's Meet the Press that she plans to introduce a bill to ban assault weapons. Even West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who calls himself a gun supporter, says he sees no reason for these types of weapons.
But as Congress considers new laws, the scientific research we need to craft the best policies is in short supply. This is by design.
In the 1990s, politicians backed by the NRA attacked researchers for publishing data on firearm research. For good measure, they also went after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for funding the research. According to the NRA, such science is not “legitimate.” To make sure federal agencies got the message, Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) sponsored an amendment that stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, the exact amount it had spent on firearms research the previous year.
But last summer, Dickey recanted. No longer in office, he wrote an editorial stating that “scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners.”
To understand more about what we know and don’t know about the science of firearm violence, Slate contacted Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis Medical Center. For over 30 years, he has studied firearm violence and published more than 100 studies in the field.
Paul Thacker: Since the ban on CDC funding for firearm violence research, how do scientists such as yourself find money for this type of science?
Garen Wintemute: The National Institute of Justice had a highly respected program of research in the field, smaller than CDC’s. That program ended several years ago when its program officer, a strong advocate for research on violence, retired. A number of private foundations also provided funding for this research, particularly in the 1990s, but many of them have left the field as well. Today, to my knowledge, there are fewer than five.
PT: Have other agencies besides the CDC also been intimidated by funding this type of research?
GW: I’ll let the agencies discuss whether they’ve been intimidated or simply prevented or prohibited. The statutory language, which remains in appropriations legislation for the Department of Health and Human Services to this day, is that “none of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.” I think it’s fair to say that this language has been interpreted at times to mean that none of the funds could be used to support research that, depending on its findings, might be used in support of efforts to alter current firearm policy.
It’s worth noting that when signing the budget for 2012, President Obama said of this provision that “I have advised the Congress that I will not construe these provisions as preventing me from fulfilling my constitutional responsibility to recommend to the Congress’s consideration such measures as I shall judge necessary and expedient.”
These comments have new relevance in light of the president’s statement this Wednesday that he is appointing Vice President Biden to chair a panel that will recommend a slate of firearm policy reforms by next month.
PT: About as many people in the United States are killed in auto accidents as by firearms. How does the amount of research and number of scientists in auto safety compare to firearm safety?
GW: I believe that 2012 will turn out to be the first year in which the United States has more deaths from firearm violence than motor vehicles.
An entire federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has as its mission the understanding and prevention of death and injury on our roads and highways. It reports fiscal year 2012 funding of $62.4 million overall for research and analysis: $35.5 million for vehicle safety and $26.9 million for highway safety.
These funds are well spent. For nearly 50 years, this agency has worked to reduce death and injury. And it has succeeded.
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.
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.
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