This editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on April 9.
Every mass shooting, most recently the slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, brings a familiar and usually fruitless call and response. Gun control advocates urge tighter laws; gun rights advocates argue those measures are too harsh or won’t work.
What’s missing from this debate is persuasive studies that provide strong evidence of strategies proven to reduce gun violence, and of those shown to have little or no effect. In that void, lots of people confidently voice assertions that may or may not be accurate.
Why the dearth of compelling data? One reason is a 1996 congressional amendment barred the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from spending to “advocate or promote gun control.” The amendment, sponsored by the late GOP Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas, for two decades has been credited — and blamed — for tamping down government-funded gun research.
That could change. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar recently promised the CDC will resume research to find ways to curb gun violence. “We’re in the science business and the evidence-generating business,” Azar says, vowing the agency’s researchers will be “certainly working in this field, as they do across the broad spectrum of disease control and prevention.” Bravo.
We hope Azar follows through on this promise, and quickly. The federal government isn’t the only source of possible gun research funding, but it could be the most influential and independent.
Even Dickey apparently recognized the damage done by his amendment. Six years ago, he co-authored a Washington Post op-ed that called lawmakers’ fears of such research “senseless.” “We must learn what we can do to save lives,” Dickey and his co-author wrote.
Strong research can lead to powerful measures to prevent more #StonemanDouglas massacres. “We have repeatedly and consciously turned our back on the problem,” Garen Wintemute, who started the Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California, Davis, told The New York Times. “How many thousands of people are dead today who might have been alive if that research effort had been put in place and we had answered critical questions and set prevention measures in motion?” A haunting proposition, not just for the survivors of Stoneman Douglas, but of Sandy Hook, Columbine. …
We aren’t talking huge sums of research money, and finding it within federal health budgets never has loomed as a problem. Gun violence is a public health crisis, as urgent and lethal as cigarette smoking or Ebola. This needn’t be a government-only effort; private firms and foundations can and should contribute to answer urgent questions about how to keep Americans safe from an epidemic of gun violence.
As with any scientific research, there will be intense debate. Good. Let rival gun control and gun rights advocates debate the paths research should follow, argue the merits of studies, and poke holes in conclusions. That’s how science works.
Many people may not have believed the initial studies that showed a link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. They shrugged off the dangers or justified smoking for its pleasures. But the evidence of health risks grew overwhelming over time. So did the number of people who quit — or never started.
It’s a rough analogy, but the overarching point is: Let’s establish some evidence about the gun epidemic and what can curtail it. Then Americans can decide what additional gun measures, if any, they will support.
Such research isn’t a threat to the Second Amendment. Information is information. New laws should be grounded in research — not baseless conjecture, fear or ignorance.
—Reprinted from the |Chicago Tribune April 9.