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What We Don’t Know About Guns

Notwithstanding persistent calls for a cool-headed, information-driven debate on gun violence, this week there was plenty of evidence of emotion-driven action on the issue of guns. Marchers were back on this streets this week, raising the heat this time in Hartford. And the public galleries at the President’s State of the Union Address at the US Capitol were occupied by several Newtowners, including the first selectman, first responders, educators, and a fourth grader and her mother. They were all invited, no doubt, to both honor the town in its time of distress and to raise the emotional stakes for lawmakers. They gave 2013’s new imperatives on addressing gun violence a human face.

We should never discount or denigrate the power of emotions. Without the extraordinary emotional response to the horrific killings at Sandy Hook School, neither the state nor the nation would be focused as they are on gun violence. However, one of those emotions — frustration — derives from the apparent inability of lawmakers to empirically assess the factors that contribute to this scourge, which in 2008 and 2009 killed 5,740 children and teens — nearly twice the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. Sadly, much of the legislative response to escalating gun violence has taken the form of anti-empiricism.

Since the 1990s the National Rifle Association and pro-gun rights members of Congress have sought to suppress research on gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, first by trying to get rid of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, where by 1996 research was indicating that homicides were more likely to occur in households with guns. Failing to eliminate the national injury center outright, Congress cut CDC funding by $2.6 million — the exact amount of the injury center’s budget. In case the message wasn’t clear, they added strings to the CDC’s overall appropriation requiring that no money be used “to advocate or promote gun control.” The NRA also successfully pressed for a provision in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) enacted in 2010 that bans doctors, health care programs, or health insurers from the “collection of any information relating to the presence or storage of a lawfully possessed firearm or ammunition in the residence or on the property of an individual.”

In 2011, Florida’s legislators enacted and its governor signed a law prohibiting physicians from asking questions about gun ownership in a home, just as pediatricians might ask about the presence of swimming pools or the use of bicycle helmets as they screen general health hazards affecting their patients. The NRA has proposed similar physician gag laws in several other states, including a West Virginia house bill that would find physicians asking about guns in the home guilty of “professional incompetence” and “gross negligence” punishable by fines and a revocation of the doctor’s medical license.

Fortunately, the emotional impact of the massacre in Sandy Hook seems to have reawakened an appetite in Washington and around the country for hard information on the foundations of gun violence. Last month, President Obama, in an executive order, instructed the CDC to restart such research, and he is now pressing Congress to approve $10 million for research on gun violence, including expanded investigations of the effects of violent images in video games and other media. Resistance to even this relatively small amount of research funding is expected from gun rights advocates, who frequently assert there is no evidence linking gun bans to decreased levels of gun violence — and apparently want to ensure that there never will be.

If we are ever to have a fact-based discussion of guns and violence in America, we should at least have the courage to start collecting those facts.

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