In 1996, a Republican congressman from Arkansas named Jay Dickey pushed through an amendment stripping $2.6 million out of the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His measure was not about the budget deficit, though; Dickey’s aim was to force the CDC to stop researching the effects of gun violence. The centers’ annual appropriation still contains the language resulting from Dickey’s efforts 16 years ago: “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.” That intimidation has been central to what Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald calls “The NRA’s war on gun science.” Thankfully, the president’s proposed gun control package includes a call to “end the freeze on gun violence research.” That’s a worthy push against the anti-science impulse that has perverted not just the gun control discussion but the broader political debate as well.
The NRA’s intimidation campaign, not surprisingly, started when scientists started producing findings that the gun lobby didn’t like. In the mid-1990s, reported the New York Times, the CDC was “becoming increasingly assertive about the importance of studying gun-related injuries and deaths as a public health phenomenon, financing studies that found, for example, having a gun in the house, rather than conferring protection, significantly increased the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.” As a result of the NRA and GOP’s efforts, “the amount of money available today for studying the impact of firearms is a fraction of what it was in the mid-1990s, and the number of scientists toiling in the field has dwindled to just a handful as a result, researchers say.” And because private organizations have had to shoulder the burden, even less of what little money there still is goes to the broad, long-term studies that can lead to better policies.
The anti-research impulse on the far right (enabled, one should note, by more moderate Republicans who refuse to block it) doesn’t stop with gun violence either: Last fall, Senate Republicans forced the Congressional Research Service to withdraw “an economic report that found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth, a central tenet of conservative economic theory … against the advice of the research service’s economics division.” And under the George W. Bush administration, federal scientists were repeatedly “pressured to remove references to “climate change” and “global warming” from a range of documents.”
Regardless of where one stands on gun control, or on any of these other issues, the far right’s attempts to restrict scientific research should concern everyone. Consider the “gun in the house” study mentioned in the Times article cited earlier, conducted by Art Kellerman: Gun control advocates continue to cite the study’s finding that “a gun kept in the home was 43 times more likely to be involved in the death of a member of the household than to be used in self-defense.” But the study has had a number of critics and the data is now more than 20 years old. Unfortunately, more recent national studies are few and far between, and, as one paper says, “many of the studies conducted to date have been based on small samples and were limited to specific population groups such as adolescents or older adults.” Taken together, the studies still back Kellerman’s findings, but regardless of where one stands, the data are not exactly ideal for policymaking. If our country is to make smart decisions, surely suppressing science is the wrong way to go, yet the far right continues to insist on doing just that. President Obama’s call for gun violence research is an important stand against this war on science.
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