Skip to main content

Let's take politics out of gun research

By Michael Halpern, Special to CNN
January 8, 2013 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
An anti-gun activist holds up a banner as NRA leader Wayne LaPierre talks about the Newtown, Connecticut, school slaughter.
An anti-gun activist holds up a banner as NRA leader Wayne LaPierre talks about the Newtown, Connecticut, school slaughter.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Halpern: We need scientific research on gun violence to inform policy
  • Halpern: The NRA pressured Congress to end gun violence research at CDC
  • Researchers free from conflicts of interest should work with policy makers, he says
  • Also, we must open our minds to findings that disagree with our beliefs, he writes

Editor's note: Michael Halpern works with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He is an expert on the use of science in government policy and writes on the intersection of science and politics at The Equation. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelUCS.

(CNN) -- Since the December 14 mass killing in Connecticut, we've seen a lot of finger pointing. Too many guns. Not enough guns. Powerful lobbyists. Insufficient mental health services.

Discussion of possible explanations is often neither civil nor constructive, and based on a closed-minded and entrenched belief that those who disagree with us have their facts wrong.

The victims in Sandy Hook, Aurora and Fort Hood -- all killed or wounded by gun violence -- deserve better.

There are two major ways we can zero in on facts and foster a more informed discussion.

Michael Halpern
Michael Halpern

The first is to further develop and meaningfully consider high quality scientific research on violence prevention and mental health. The second is to create more opportunities for public policy discussions that incorporate this research.

Politics: New Congress, new push for gun laws

The scientific literature regarding violence prevention is considerable. Yet important research that focuses on gun violence has been shut down for political purposes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once considered gun violence a public health issue. The science agency had the freedom to ask important questions: Does having a gun in the home make a family safer? Do concealed carry laws increase or reduce gun fatalities?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But in 1996, the National Rifle Association pressured its many supporters in Congress to put the squeeze on the CDC by cutting funding that went to gun research, with the stipulation: "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." Gun-related research ground to a halt.

In 2009, scientists funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism looked into whether carrying a gun increases or decreases the risk of being shot in an assault. In 2011, Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg inserted a provision into a funding bill that extended the CDC restrictions to the rest of the Department of Health and Human Services, ending that similar research. Even Obamacare has been touched by the NRA: The new health care law restricts doctors' ability to collect data about patients' gun use.

Mixed messages in gun control debate
Newtown United takes on gun violence
Obama gathers team for gun reforms
Chase: All questions are on the table

"Criticizing research is fair game," Drs. Arthur Kellermann and Frederick Rivara wrote in opposition in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month. "Suppressing research by targeting its sources of funding is not."

Science and engineering research can answer important questions. For instance, can we cost-effectively engineer firearms to be used solely by the registered owner? What's the best way for law enforcement agencies to share gun violence data? Does media attention focused on the killers encourage copycat crimes? Does better access to mental health services reduce criminal activity?

Some findings could lead to policy choices that aren't yet on the table or help determine where we should best focus our attention. Republicans and Democrats alike are warming up to the idea that adequate research can lead to more informed policy decisions. Former Rep. Jay Dickey, the Arkansas Republican who led the charge against the CDC in 1996, recently expressed regret for suppressing firearm safety research.

Just as important, how do all these pieces of the puzzle fit together? Having an informed debate means relying on credible syntheses of expert studies.

To come up with answers, scientific organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, could convene independent panels to piece together what is known and what is not known and to evaluate various policy options. The commission set up after the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill is one such example. The 9/11 Commission is another.

Analysis: Guns and the law

When independent experts who are free from conflicts of interest come together in good faith to study an issue, they can have a profound and constructive influence on government policy. At a more basic level, national and state legislative committees should hold more hearings designed to study evidence rather than using hearings as theater to advance a political point of view.

Nongovernmental organizations, including the one where I work, can redouble their efforts to bring scientists and policymakers together. This is especially important after the demise of the Office of Technology Assessment, a research office within Congress that, until the mid-1990s, provided independent analyses on issues up for congressional debate.

In the absence of a reliable base of information we can all agree on, we guess. We interpret the facts to suit our beliefs. We put our faith in the institutions or individuals we trust, whether it's the NRA, religious leaders or gun control groups. And we keep on having the same broken debate.

Of course, the evidence can only take us so far. Moral, economic, legal and political arguments can and should carry weight. But robust research can set the baseline for a discussion and help us make the best decisions for society.

The more polarized, caustic and poorly analyzed an issue, the more intractable it becomes. We need to develop venues for rational discourse about research that is resilient to political pressures.

More robust partnerships among scientists, policymakers and the public can help us work together to address critical challenges, even after they fall from the headlines.

Vice President Joe Biden is leading a task force to address our country's problem of gun violence. One critical step the task force should embrace is to lift restrictions on the research public health scientists can do. And we can all reject attempts to discredit evidence that challenges our beliefs.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Halpern.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT