Science opinion: NRA prevents researchers from studying gun violence

The horror of the Sandy Hook school shooting shook the United States, and has initiated a fierce debate on gun control south of the border. Politicians and lawmakers have the difficult job of rising above the horror to ask hard questions about how and why this event happened and how we can prevent it from happening again.

President Barack Obama has boldly stated, “The fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing. The fact that we can’t prevent every act of violence doesn’t mean we can’t steadily reduce the violence.”

The president’s words remind us that despite overwhelming grief and a feeling that such an event is senseless, there is cause and context to every situation. In order to make effective policy changes we need to understand these factors objectively.

A considerable body of research was conducted from 1985 to 1997, during which time the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded a series of studies on gun violence in the United States. During this period, a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who kept firearms in their home had a 2.7 times greater risk of homicide than those who did not have guns in their home.

These results, although based on careful analysis and published in peer-reviewed journals, went against the arguments for gun ownership that have been perpetuated by the National Rifle Association (NRA) since the 1970s.

Following these research findings, politicians backed by the NRA pushed to disable future studies on firearms-related violence due to fear that researchers would find evidence to support and enforce stricter gun control measures. Federal funding for firearms research was abruptly cut short by an amendment passed in 1996, effectively withdrawing US $2.6 million from the CDC’s Injury Center budget, the exact amount spent on firearms-related research the previous year.

In case this was not clear enough to researchers with the CDC, the final amendment included the clause that stated, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

The amendment was submitted by former Arkansas Republican Congressman Jay Dickey, a self-described “point person” for the NRA gun lobby. Dickey has since changed his mind about supporting science on firearms research, and published an article with co-author Mark Rosenberg following the Colorado movie theatre shooting entitled, “We won’t know the cause of gun violence until we look for it.” In the article, Dickey reiterates the importance of studying the many variables involved in gun violence and argues that this can be done without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun ownership.

Dickey’s reasoned call for federally-supported firearm research is unfortunately rare. His is a sane and calming voice amongst a sea of Alex Jones’, the radio host who has gone viral for his “debate” with Piers Morgan earlier this week. Arguments provided by the NRA for gun ownership largely appeal to emotion and when feelings run high, it can be easy to whip the public into a gun-buying, heat-packing frenzy.

Supporting research is not a wildly leftist idea, as the NRA would have you believe but, rather, a way to investigate the cause of gun violence and work towards reducing the number of deaths caused by guns in the United States in a pragmatic, science-based manner. Research on firearms can only provide more dispassionate answers to the difficult questions America must ask in the face of gun-related tragedy.