Few issues divide people like guns.
Just consider the starkly split response to our piece this week about how the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still had not resumed researching gun violence, two years after President Obama ordered the agency to do so.
Gun rights supporters argue the CDC shouldn't get involved. The agency should stick to controlling and preventing disease, they say.
There’s also a healthy dose of distrust of any research the CDC might conduct – which is why the agency essentially stopped studying the issue in 1996 after the NRA accused the CDC of advocating for gun control. The resulting research ban caused a steep decline in firearms studies nationwide. As a University of Pennsylvania criminology professor explained it, “I see no upside to ignorance."
But even that is a contentious point. So the recent article on the CDC’s continued failure to kick-start gun studies was met by wildly different responses.
Here's Everytown for Gun Safety, Michael Bloomberg's advocacy group.:
And the response is from Dana Loesch, a conservative talk show host and
of "Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America":
Loesch's point was echoed by many: The CDC studied gun violence in 2013, after Obama's order, and found a wealth of facts that didn't fit the narrative that guns are dangerous. And that's why the study didn't receive the attention it deserved.
An article in the New American Magazine summarized the study: "If the president was looking to the CDC report for support on how to reduce the threat of firearm-related violence through legislation restricting the rights of American citizens, he was sorely disappointed. Perhaps that’s why so few of the media have publicized the report."
Game over, some activists declared:
So what does the study say?
It's hefty, running 121 pages. The title is "Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence." The National Academies' Institute of Medicine and National Research Council published it in 2013.
And the study clearly makes the case for why more gun-violence research is needed.
The CDC requested the study to identify research goals after Obama issued his January 2012 executive order. The National Academies's study authors clearly see gun violence as a problem worth examining: “By their sheer magnitude, injuries and deaths involving firearms constitute a pressing public health problem."
The authors suggested focusing on five areas: the characteristics of firearm violence, risk and protective factors, interventions and strategies, gun safety technology and the influence of video games and other media. The document is peppered with examples of how little we know about the causes and consequences of gun violence -- no doubt the result of an 18-year-old CDC research ban.
But gun-rights supporters zeroed on in a few statements to make their case. One related to the defensive use of guns. The New American Magazine article noted that "Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million per year, in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008."
So it would appear the "good use" of guns outweighs the "bad use." That may be true, except the study says all of those statistics are in dispute -- creating, in the study authors' eyes, a research imperative.
The study (available as a PDF) calls the defensive use of guns by crime victims "a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed." While it might be as high as 3 million defensive uses of guns each year, some scholars point to the much lower estimate of 108,000 times a year. "The variation in these numbers remains a controversy in the field," the study notes.
The authors also say gun ownership might be good for defensive uses, but that benefit could be canceled out by the risk of suicide or homicide that comes with gun ownership. The depth of the relationship is unknown "and this is a sufficiently important question that it merits additional, careful exploration."
Another point gun-rights activists make about the National Academies's report is that "the key finding the president was no doubt seeking — that more laws would result in less crime — was missing."
And they're right. The key finding is missing. But that's because we don't know the answer -- one way or the other.
That, some would say, is exactly why the CDC needs to conduct research.