Research needed before trying new gun control laws

Advocates of tighter gun-control legislation were stunned last month by the United States Senate’s rejection of new restrictions on the types of firearms that can be sold and on the expansion of background checks for purchasing weapons. President Obama called it “a shameful day for Washington” and blamed the failure on “the gun lobby and its allies who willfully lied about the bill, and the senators who voted against it as cowardly and with no coherent arguments against the legislation.”

There is some truth to the president’s unusually vitriolic outburst, but he left out the most important reason: We don’t know enough about why and by whom such wanton killings occur to be able to write effective legislation that might prevent them.

A recent editorial in the British science journal Nature (March 28) expressed that enigma, and went on to identify some of the unknowns: “Do state laws allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons result in more or fewer deaths? We don’t know. Would the spiking homicide rate in Chicago, Ill., be higher still if it were not for the city’s restrictive gun laws, or are the laws ineffective? We don’t know. Does a limit on assault weapons reduce the overall rate of firearms injuries and deaths? We don’t know.”

In a previous column (Herald, March 3) I cautioned that because we don’t know what types of people turn into killers or what conditions trigger the act, we should be careful about expanding background checklist. Doing so would add many more people to the list who would not become killers with the hope of identifying a rarity that will. Adding people to the list is not a neutral act. It identifies those on the list as dangerous and suggests they should be feared by society, a stigma that could affect their lives in many different ways.

These are only some of the “known-unknowns,” to use Donald Rumsfeld’s artful wording, that need answers in order to provide information towards evidence-based gun control laws (meaning statistically quantified and verified cause and effect relationships). The Nature editorial went on to identify a major impediment to conducting such research. Since 1996 the U.S. National Rifle Association has had Congress insert restrictive language in the annual bill that funds the Center for Disease Control and Prevention prohibiting the agency from spending money “to advocate or promote gun control.” In 2012, the language was extended to Health and Human Services and the National Institute of Health. The restrictions include giving grants to universities and other research groups supported by these agencies.

The Nature editorial described some of the data that has not been collected as a result of this 17-year stifling of government research: “Data on the proportion of gun sales occurring between private individuals – as opposed to sales by licensed dealers – has not been collected by the Department of Justice since 1994; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not included firearms-related questions in its Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System questionnaire since 2004; and most telling, the number of academic publications relevant to firearm violence has fallen by 60 percent since 1996.”

Commendably, the president did write a memorandum to the CDC and other agencies asking them to launch a vigorous effort to study the causes of gun violence and ways to prevent it, and asked Congress to provide $10 million to support such investigations. The White House rationale was that “Research on gun violence is not advocacy; it is critical public-health research.” But that is legalistic wordplay. As the Nature editorial predicted “Obama’s research agenda will not get far in the presence of the existing prohibitions.”

States are of no help. Three, including Colorado, have passed gun legislation but without concrete provisions and adequate funding for data collection and systematic analysis. These states could provide much needed information about what works and what doesn’t but only if a major effort is made to find that out.

If new gun violence prevention legislation is to succeed, the country needs to get past its emotional rationalizations for doing something immediately, and its reliance on retrospective guesses about what went wrong as a basis for constructing new laws. Good research takes time, and the public must be patient. The U.S. Congress needs to fund research that will provide the data for evidence-based laws, and its first step must be to get rid of the prohibition language against such research in CDC and other agencies funding bill.

Garth Buchanan holds a doctorate in applied science and has 35 years of experience in operations research. Reach him at

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