Pinned at the top of conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro’s twitter is the simple phrase, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” The quote captures the reasoning that has made him so popular in recent times; he provides a beacon alleged intellectualism to a demographic straddled with the likes of Sean Hannity, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Alex Jones. While this quote seemingly signals an appreciation for intellectual discourse and objectivity, Shapiro has historically failed to acknowledge not only scientific consensus (e.g. climate change), but the scientific community’s potential ability to solve other social questions such as domestic gun violence.
It is fair to say that gun violence is not subject to an appropriate level of scientific investigation. Based on data collected by the non-profit “Gun Violence Archive”, last year saw 61,517 gun-related casualties. Similar causes of mortality such as motor vehicle accidents; however, have received far more research funding, and as a result, have benefited from an increase in available literature. So, why hasn’t more research been conducted on gun violence?
The unfortunate reality is that the same research center which studies motor vehicle casualties – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – is effectively prohibited from appropriating funds for the study of gun violence. In fact, as a leading public health institution, the CDC devotes resources to endeavors outside the traditional realm of prevention. The study of non-communicable diseases, occupational safety, environmental health, and more importantly, injury prevention, all fall under their jurisdiction. Because of legislation from 1996, however, there is an exception to conducting research regarding gun-related injuries.
Named after Republican Congressman Jay Dickey, the Dickey Amendment states that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention...at the [CDC] may be used to advocate or promote gun control”. This language, as many critics have pointed out, does not explicitly forbid the use of funds to study gun-related injuries as long as it does not take a position in support of “gun control”. In the context of the research at the time, however, it seems likely that the amendment was a reactionary measure motivated by external powers (e.g. the National Rifle Association) to protect the gun industry. The highly reputable New England Journal of Medicine published CDC-funded research in 1993 which concluded that guns kept at home were associated with increased homicide risk by a family member or acquaintance as opposed to a means of protection. What followed shortly after was the earmarking of 2.6 million dollars towards preventing traumatic brain injury, the exact amount in the CDC’s budget which they had previously invested in firearm-injury research.
The re-appropriation of funds, coupled with the amendment, sent a clear message to CDC scientists. In the words of Dr. Kellerman, author of the 1993 paper, “…no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out [what the amendment permitted].” One scientist who opted to pursue such research, then-director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Dr. Mark Rosenberg, found himself removed from his position. Furthermore, due to the line-item budgeting by which the CDC is funded, researchers are afforded less flexibility when deciding what to study compared to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In response to President Obama’s memorandum after the shooting at Sandy Hook, the NIH disregarded the language of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, which told the NIH to steer clear of gun-related research. The Institutes then cautiously awarded $850,000 to Dr. Wintemute in order to study gun-related offences by owners with histories of alcoholism and drug abuse. But since the change of guard at the White House, the NIH’s ambition has regressed, and the research funding has expired.
Given the lack of research literature on gun violence, it is not surprising that the new administration, in light of the shooting in Parkland, has voiced dangerous and unscientific opinions on how to resolve gun violence and mass shootings. President Trump has argued for arming a fraction of teachers, a ridiculous notion that even Republican congressman have dismissed. It has been his reliance on blaming gun violence on a lack of mental health support; however, which has caused the most damage. President Trump’s reversal of Obama-era restrictions on gun-ownership aimed at severely mentally-ill individuals also contributes to the pervasive stigma around mental health. President Trump even went so far as to suggest that the reinstatement of psychiatric institutions could curb the frequency of mass shootings, ignoring their history of providing inadequate care and inhumane conditions. Though a discussion regarding mental health should not be excluded from the political arena, the public should remain aware that “only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with mental illness”, as stated by the American Psychological Association president, Dr. Jessica H. Daniel.
So what is the fuel behind both congress and the administrations anti-gun law agenda? Some skeptics fear that improved data collection, a byproduct of gun-related research, will lead to the creation of databases keeping track of gun ownership. For them, this is a page out of Big Brother’s book, and the research is not to be trusted. In fact, distrust of the government is a popular topic in the debate surrounding the Second Amendment. This doubt has been exacerbated by the “anti-intellectual” movement in the contemporary right wing, which is currently in power. In the context of this debate, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has only stoked the fires of skepticism around gun violence research. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that the last decade has seen them adopt a dubious perspective based in an absence of scientific research, similar to the majority of their 3.5 million members.
I cannot tell you for sure why the NRA has begun practicing Mitch McConnell’s brand of obstructionism. What I do understand; however, is that they do not believe in a scenario where gun violence can be reduced while simultaneously protecting gun rights. This is largely due to their unwavering loyalty to the multi-billion-dollar gun industry. In an effort to maintain their grip on Capitol Hill, the NRA has already spent over half a million dollars on congressional campaigns in the past two months. By ensuring that these politicians have a political future, they are instead preserving their ignorance. If the lawmakers continue to be spellbound by the NRA’s promise of campaign funds, they will never be able to read the research which may properly inform future political decisions in the hopes of reducing gun-related casualties.
Some critics have questioned the CDC’s ability to conduct such research. In a regurgitation of NRA propaganda, Forbes contributor Dr. Paul Hsieh stated that CDC research is “designed to…promote a campaign to reduce lawful firearms ownership”. He also cited a paper in the reputable medical journal The Lancet whose conclusions on how to reduce gun violence were based on laws that were not implemented in practice. The quote which he used to enhance the credibility of his argument came from the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, Daniel Webster. What Dr. Hsieh does not disclose in his opinion is that Daniel Webster is a leading supporter for research funding related to gun-violence, as stated in his book “Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis.”
Contrary to the belief of individuals such as Dr. Hsieh, it is precisely this sort of evidence-based research which the CDC is well-equipped to conduct. If we are going to uncover the facts and separate them from the age-old opinions circulating on political forums, both our politicians and the general public must embrace scientific research as a starting point for a solution, and not the problem.
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