In the midst of President Obama’s denunciation of gun violence - if you’ve lost track, the latest massacre was on Friday - he lamented Washington’s ongoing inertia and said that, in fact, “we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially prevent gun deaths.”
If you heard that remark, you may well have wondered, “Wait a sec. Congress blocks the collection of gun data? Really? Things can’t be that bad. Obama must’ve made that up.”
Nope, he didn’t make that up. The statutory suppression of gun violence research has been the law of the land for the last 19 years, courtesy of the gun lobby and its congressional servants.
We don’t know if universal background checks or more vigilant mental health measures would reduce gun violence because federal money for research has virtually dried up since the mid-1990s. It’s bad enough that, statistically, we’re by far the most violent country in the western world; it’s doubly scandalous that we starve scientific inquiry.
In fact, this past June, the House Republicans voted yet again to bar the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting gun violence research. The CDC has been barred since 1996, the National Institute of Health and other federal health agencies have been barred since 2011 - and this censorship won’t be lifted in the foreseeable future because, as Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole said in June, “We don’t think this (research) is the appropriate forum for a debate over the Second Amendment.”
If the gun lobby is so confident about their Freedom arguments, about the deterrent value of universal gun use, then why are they so afraid of science?
Because the NRA cracks the whip in Congress, its opinion trumps the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics - all of which believe that maybe, just maybe, guns are a danger to public health (11,000 gun homicides a year, or 30 a day), and that maybe we should devote federal funds to investigate that further.
No other research topic has been singled out for this kind of suppression. It started in 1995, when the CDC was studying whether there was a link between the increasing prevalence of guns and the increasing incidents of gun violence. The NRA’s Republican factotums dutifully erased all the CDC funding earmarked for that research in 1996. CDC director David Satcher promptly issued a prescient warning: “Here is a prescription for inaction on a major cause of death and disability. Here is a (policy) that not only casts doubt on the ability of scientists to conduct research involving controversial issues, but also raises basic questions about the ability, fundamental to democracy, to have honest, searching public discussions of such issues.”
Technically, the law doesn’t literally ban federal gun research - the language reads, “None of the funds...may be used to advocate or promote gun control” - but the chilling effect has been obvious. The CDC won’t touch the gun issue, fearing that the gun lobby will frame any and all research as “advocacy,” and fearing that the NRA’s Republican pals will retaliate by cutting the CDC budget even further. Understandably, none of the public health agencies are willing to stick their necks out.
And if the CDC and NIH bans aren’t scandalous enough, check this out: The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) used to publicly identify the most notorious gun dealers, the ones who flouted the laws and sold heavily to criminals. But thanks to a House amendment introduced in 2003 by a Kansas Republican, the ATF has been barred these last 12 years from releasing that kind of data. The ATF can still collect the data; it just can’t tell us who the bad dealers are. I guess because of Freedom.
This is the issue - suppression, censorship, secrecy - that Obama referenced in his passing remark. And he asked, “How can that be?” But he knows how, as do we.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org