In the wake of recent events in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino, there has been renewed debate about gun ownership in our society, with the president addressing the debate this past Sunday. The issue seems more important than ever, with more mass shootings occurring in the current calendar year than days so far. The balance between public safety and individual rights is difficult to navigate, and it’s impossible to even begin discussion of the issue without provoking strong reactions from both sides.
This makes it all the more disappointing that little high quality research exists in the field of gun violence. The debate can only be as good as the known facts, and the fact is there is still a lot we do not know about the numbers associated with gun violence. Universities, think tanks, and even crowdsourcing online have made great contributions to what we know, but our greatest tool for public policy research, the federal government, is effectively banned from studying gun violence.
This ban largely stems from an amendment passed in 1996 that prevented funding to be used “to advocate or promote gun control.” The language of the amendment is vague – for example, it’s unclear if publishing firearm homicide rates counts as promoting gun control – but this amendment has caused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay away from any research on gun violence. The effect was so strong that the congressman credited with creating the amendment now opposes it. There’s now mobilization to drop the amendment: hours before the shooting a group of physicians gathered on Capitol Hill to call for an end to the ban.
This should be something both sides can agree merits further research. The goal is to have a better understanding of an issue that threatens the health of the public, and take the right steps to effectively remedy it. Those remedies could include stricter gun control legislation, but they could also include epidemiological data that would help law enforcement or hospitals to better prepare for the impact of gun violence. They could also include developing a program to serve communities that are at higher risk to be offenders or victims of gun violence. Or more investments in mental health treatment, which is the position conservative leadership has taken on the issue. To be well designed and thoughtfully deployed, any of these remedies will require data that we don’t currently have.
What’s clear is something needs to change and the government has to play a role. We need sound, high quality research devoted to this issue. In the wake of the Newtown, CT mass shooting, the Institute of Medicine released a report that identified the following set of topics that could make significant progress on the issue:
- Characteristics of Firearm Violence
- Risk and Protective Factors
- Firearm Violence Prevention and Other Interventions
- Impact of Gun Safety Technology
- Video Games and Other Media
And quantifying the effects of gun violence on public health should be seen as just the beginning. There’s much more we can learn about the impact on other aspects of American society: crime, the economy, the education system, and much more. However, without adequate data and research, all we have to go on is opinion and gut feelings.