From 1986 to 1996, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sponsored high-quality, peer-reviewed research into the underlying causes of gun violence. People who kept guns in their homes did not — despite their hopes — gain protection, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Instead, residents in homes with a gun faced a 2.7-fold greater risk of homicide and a 4.8-fold greater risk of suicide. The National Rifle Association moved to suppress the dissemination of these results and to block funding of future government research into the causes of firearm injuries.
One of us served as the NRA’s point person in Congress and submitted an amendment to an appropriations bill that removed $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, the amount the agency’s injury center had spent on firearms-related research the previous year. This amendment, together with a stipulation that “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,” sent a chilling message.
Since the legislation passed in 1996, the United States has spent about $240 million a year on traffic safety research, but there has been almost no publicly funded research on firearm injuries.
As a consequence, U.S. scientists cannot answer the most basic question: What works to prevent firearm injuries? We don’t know whether having more citizens carry guns would decrease or increase firearm deaths; or whether firearm registration and licensing would make inner-city residents safer or expose them to greater harm. We don’t know whether a ban on assault weapons or large-capacity magazines, or limiting access to ammunition, would have saved lives in Aurora or would make it riskier for people to go to a movie. And we don’t know how to effectively restrict access to firearms by those with serious mental illness.
What we do know is that firearm injuries will continue to claim far too many lives at home, at school, at work and at the movies until we start asking and answering the hard questions. “Such violence, such evil is senseless,” President Obama said last week. What is truly senseless is to decry these deaths as senseless when the tools exist to understand causes and to prevent these deadly effects.
We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago, but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners. The same evidence-based approach that is saving millions of lives from motor-vehicle crashes, as well as from smoking, cancer and HIV/AIDS, can help reduce the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence.
Most politicians fear talking about guns almost as much as they would being confronted by one, but these fears are senseless. We must learn what we can do to save lives. It is like the answer to the question “When is the best time to plant a tree?” The best time to start was 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.