By Amy Downs
In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, those who support more restrictive gun laws and those who don’t are asking what our society can do to make sure that tragedies like Sandy Hook don’t ever happen again. This week President Obama presented a package of gun violence prevention initiatives. In December, the National Rifle Association (NRA) discussed its views and solutions to the issue.
We are in a dishearteningly familiar position. Each side is criticizing the other’s positions for a lack of evidence.
Once I got over the initial shock of the Sandy Hook shootings — the anguish will take much longer — I did what I normally do. I did my research. I looked for the facts on gun violence and effective ways to prevent it. I went to one of the most well-known public health organizations in the county, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What I was found was that until the mid-1990s, the CDC sponsored research related to gun violence prevention. That changed when a 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that keeping a gun at home was independently associated with an increased risk of homicide in the home. That analysis generated a backlash of criticism that this study and other CDC-funded research on the topic was faulty, sloppy and politically motivated. Beginning in 1996, Congress prohibited the agency from funding any research that could be used to advocate for or promote gun control. While Congress didn’t technically prohibit any research on firearms, the CDC backed away from analyzing the causes of gun violence and the efficacy of policy solutions.
Fast forward to 2013. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, we are struggling as a society to determine the next steps to make our communities safer. Inevitably, the national discourse has both sides attacking the other for a lack of creditable and causal evidence.
Anticipating the issue, a group of researchers in the fields of crime, medicine, public health, economics and public policy wrote to Vice President Biden, who is leading the White House effort, and urged him to address the lack of information.
The experts wrote: “The tragedy of gun violence is compounded by the fact that the usual methods for addressing a public health and safety threat of this magnitude – collection of basic data, scientific inquiry, policy formation, policy analysis and rigorous evaluation – are, because of politically-motivated constraints, extremely difficult in the area of firearm research. A blue-ribbon commission appointed by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that very little is currently known about effective ways to reduce gun violence.”
Their recommendations to the federal government are simple:
- Remove the current barriers to firearm-related research, policy formation, evaluation, and enforcement efforts.
- Make direct investments in unbiased scientific research and data infrastructure.
All sides agree that events like Sandy Hook should never happen. However, if we can’t review unbiased evidence regarding possible solutions and their intended (and unintended) consequences, our national dialogue on the issue will continue to be mired in finger pointing.
President Obama’s package of initiatives and proposals includes a memorandum to lift the freeze on the CDC’s gun violence research. The president asked Congress to appropriate $10 million to pay for it. But whether it’s at the CDC or another organization, whether it’s $1 million or $10 million, let’s agree that we should gather information to be able to elevate our dialogue to a more productive level. In the name of all victims of shootings, that dialogue should include evidenced-based discourse on weapons availability, accessibility of mental health services, the influence of the entertainment industry and other topics deemed relevant by researchers.
Even with unbiased information, it’s still possible that we may never agree. But we will surely fail if we don’t try.
Amy Downs is senior director for policy and analysis at the Colorado Health Institute.