The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How universities can arm us for the gun debate

View of Washington Square Park and a portion of the New York University campus in Manhattan. (courtesy NYU)
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The writer is the 16th president of New York University, a professor of chemistry, and a fellow of the Royal Society.

By Andrew Hamilton

Should the United States arm its school teachers, or ban the sale of assault weapons? Should we raise the age limit for buying rifles, or give police the power to remove guns from those they deem mentally ill?

What is the right answer to prevent another Parkland, another Sandy Hook, another Columbine? Americans want to know. Yet sadly, despite having world class researchers in public health and social sciences, we do not know.

Why not?

Principally because of the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which outlawed the use of federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” In the aftermath of its passage, CDC funding for all research pertaining to gun violence and how to prevent it effectively disappeared, and the volume of objective research slowed to a trickle. Reversing this amendment would be among the most powerful acts that we Americans could take to foster effective legislative and administrative change.

There’s been a Sisyphean quality to mass shootings over the last few years. In their aftermath, we as a nation are united in our sorrow and, seemingly, in our determination to stop the violence.

Yet the proposals that follow—banning certain weapons, improving background checks, raising the minimum required age to purchase a firearm—all get stalled in crippling debate, with various sides claiming the others’ efforts to be at best ineffective and at worst potentially harmful. In the meantime, things are getting worse: 2017 was the worst year on record for both incidents and death toll.

Without empirical data, we’re at a loss as to how exactly to resolve the argument about which ideas would prove most effective. And because the proposals are seen as opinions, rather than facts, they carry no more analytic or persuasive weight than the opinions of those who oppose such suggestions.

Happily, there is a solution to this stalemate: investment in sound scientific inquiry. Without it, we will remain rudderless; however, with it, we can steer toward effective, informed debate and public policy.

Let’s take a somewhat though not perfectly analogous situation: motor vehicle crash deaths. Forty years ago, tens of thousands of Americans were losing their lives in car crashes. Research clearly showed the value of seat belts, air bags, cabin design modifications, and raising the drinking age—all of which came to be introduced into law or automotive design. Automobile crashes still result in too many deaths, but the changes in public policy have worked: In the roughly 45 years between 1975 and 2016, the deaths per 100,000 people fell by more than half; for teenagers in particular, the rate fell by 68 percent.

With more thorough research on mass shootings, we could start answering some critical questions. What effect does the availability of guns have on the frequency of these shootings? Why do mass shooters seem especially drawn to the halls of learning? What indicators distinguish those who will go on to kill from those who won’t? What kind of police presence might deter mass shooters? What kind of training in schools might save more lives?

It is not that there has been no research. To the contrary, advocacy groups on both sides have supported studies. But the sources of such research cause it to be dismissed and mistrusted—unfairly or not. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the absence of objective research, these studies tend to be embraced or rejected according to how closely they align with one’s political leanings.

Science and research cannot dictate political choices, but they can evaluate the proposals and inform the debate. And there’s a tremendous value to knowing. The CDC estimates about 14,000 lives were saved in 2015 thanks to the seat belt. Wouldn’t we want to be able to quantify the number of children’s lives saved by a research-driven solution to school shootings?

And this is where universities are the key drivers to progress. Jonas Salk developed the polio and flu vaccines at the University of Pittsburgh, effectively eradicating the former disease and continuing to mitigate the public health issue surrounding the latter. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco in the 1980s were responsible for identifying and treating AIDS at the outset of the epidemic, and researchers in the United States and France identified the HIV virus, laying the foundation for treatment options to come. And studies at the University of Florida and Western University in Canada showed the value of raising the minimum drinking age to 21 as a social policy initiative to reduce automobile fatalities.

Some of my colleagues from other countries tell me that they believe when it comes to firearms, Americans will never think clearly. Certainly the Dickey Amendment gives them ammunition, if you will, to make their case.

But I disagree. I’ve lived in this country for 30 years, became a citizen in 1994. The America I have come to know has never wanted not to know the answer to important questions. Certainly not when children’s lives are at stake.

And I have devoted my life to higher education, because these are just the kind of important questions universities can answer for society.

So, as we search for and debate various solutions to school shootings, let’s put an end to a “know-nothing” approach; restore funding for objective, thoughtful, university-level public health research; and put facts back into the debate.

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