In the wake of yet another mass shooting on American soil — the 45th this year, according to the most conservative estimate — we are once again left with many questions and a frustrating lack of answers. What causes gun violence? What are the risk factors for gun violence injury and death? What laws are most effective at preventing gun deaths?
These are questions that are answerable through empiricism and the scientific method. Indeed, we might very well know the answers to these questions, or at least have a growing body of scientific evidence to guide us, if leading government scientists were allowed to study them.
But they’re not.
In June, just days after the Charleston church shooting that left 9 people dead, the Republican-controlled Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives rejected an amendment that would have lifted a nearly twenty-year-old ban on funding for scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct research on gun violence.
The reasoning? According to supporters of the ban, including current House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the CDC shouldn’t study these questions because “a gun is not a disease.”
“The CDC is there to look at diseases that need to be dealt with to protect public health,” Boehner said in July. “I’m sorry, but a gun is not a disease. Guns don’t kill people — people do. And when people use weapons in a horrible way, we should condemn the actions of the individual and not blame the action on some weapon.”
This argument stands in stark contrast to the views of professional medical and public health organizations, at least 52 of which have independently urged lawmakers to treat gun violence as a pressing public health epidemic.
Interestingly, though, we heard the exact same argument back in the middle of the 20th century, when the automobile industry — like the firearms industry today — was central to American culture and identity. Cars were big and powerful; they were promoted as symbols of independence and freedom, as the manifestation of our core American values. Yet with that power and freedom came danger. By the 1960s, motor vehicle accidents were responsible for killing more than 50,000 Americans a year. The common wisdom, propagated by carmakers since the 1920s, held that traffic fatalities were exclusively the fault of individual drivers (or, to put it in more familiar terms: cars don’t kill people; drivers kill people). This assertion, of course, was false, but at the time we had no way of knowing for certain, because we lacked data on the risk factors and antecedents of accident deaths.
We now find ourselves in a similar state of ignorance regarding gun fatalities. The dearth of research the lack of federal funding has produced means that, even though we know gun violence is a preventable epidemic, there is little evidence as to which policies would work to prevent gun violence and how well.
For automobiles, the blinders began to come off in the mid-1950s, when researchers suggested that vehicle design was just as much to blame for high fatality rates as bad drivers. Through evidence-based work, CDC researchers found that motor vehicle deaths could be significantly reduced with simple safety devices such as seat belts. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 mandated many of these improvements. It also set into motion a decades-long federal effort to better understand highway safety. As a result of those studies—and policies based on their findings—the death rate per mile traveled has fallen 80 percent since 1966.
But while motor vehicle deaths are on a long-term decline thanks to the implementation of public health-based injury prevention strategies, America’s gun violence epidemic continues unabated. Nationwide, in 2013 there were 33,636 gun deaths and 35,612 motor vehicle deaths. According to a 2015 analysis released by the Violence Policy Center, gun deaths now outpace motor vehicle deaths in 17 states, and if current trends continue, guns will soon surpass cars as America’s “top killing machine.” The growing trend of gun deaths outpacing motor vehicle deaths state by state is even more striking when you consider the fact that Americans’ exposure to motor vehicles vastly outweighs their exposure to guns. More than 90 percent of American households own a car while fewer than a third have a gun.
But unlike car manufacturers, the gun industry — led by the National Rifle Association of America (NRA) — has been scandalously successful in suppressing public safety research into guns.
The fight over research on gun violence goes back more than two decades. In the 1990s, the CDC funded and backed gun violence research done by Dr. Fred Rivara, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Washington at Seattle Children’s Hospital. He and his colleagues, including Dr. Arthur Kellerman of Harvard University, published an article, “Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home,” in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 1993 showing that having a gun in the home increases the risk of homicide and suicide threefold.
Outraged that reality was not falling into line with presuppositions, the NRA lobbied for members of Congress to halt future research that might further undermine the gun industry’s claims. Then-representative Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, responded to the NRA’s lobbying efforts by adding language to federal law in 1996 that barred the CDC from conducting research that might be used “to advocate or promote gun control.” This deliberately vague wording, coupled with a campaign of harassment of researchers, effectively halted federally funded gun safety research.
“[Our research] underwent peer review and was thought to be very solid and worthwhile research,” Rivara told PRI’s the Takeaway in April. “The CDC stood by our research — they had funded it and they stood by it. Unfortunately, it raised the attention of the National Rifle Association, who then worked with pro-gun members of Congress to essentially stop funding firearm research.”
The NRA has cynically framed the debate as a choice between banning all guns and doing nothing. But that’s an entirely false dichotomy. Even former Congressman Dickey — the Republican who wrote the original provision banning gun violence research — has recanted and urged Congress to repeal the ban, writing in an op-ed that, unlike health researchers studying car accidents or infectious disease, “US scientists cannot answer the most basic question: what works to prevent firearm injuries?”
President Obama made a similar plea after the Oregon massacre on Thursday, saying: “We spend over a trillion dollars and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so. And yet we have a Congress that explicitly blocks even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How could that be?”
How could that be? After all, we didn’t have to ban automobiles to cut motor vehicle fatalities — and we don’t have to ban all guns to reduce gun-related deaths. What we do need, however, is a willingness to objectively examine the causes of gun violence —and elected leaders who care enough about American lives to go where the data lead.