When we think about the National Rifle Association and its influence in American politics, we tend to focus on the lobbying group's ability to kill gun-control legislation. But Gary Cutting raises a related point that's nearly as important, but far less understood: the NRA can kill data collection about gun violence, too.
Remarkably, there's "no current scientific consensus about guns and violence," in large part because the NRA "has been able to neutralize empirical cases for control."
The most thorough and authoritative analysis is the 2004 report by a panel of leading experts, "Firearms and Violence," sponsored by the National Research Council. Its startling conclusion was that we simply don't know enough to make scientifically grounded judgments about which approaches -- from gun-control measures to permission-to-carry laws -- are likely to work.The panel's primary recommendation was simply: "If policy makers are to have a solid empirical and research base for decisions about firearms and violence, the federal government needs to support a systematic program of data collection and research that specifically addresses that issue." Or, as an expert quoted in the Times article on the report said, "The main thrust of it is, we don't know anything about anything, and more research is needed."
With this in mind, one might assume that research on firearms and their use would go up, so social scientists could get a more accurate picture from which policies could be made. But since 2004, research has actually decreased, as research funding dried up.
Maybe academics focused attention elsewhere? Hardly. The NRA successfully lobbied to "choke off" research grants, working from the assumption that less data would mean less knowledge, which in turn would lead to less policymaking.
As a rule, when an organization insists ignorance is helpful to its larger ambitions, it speaks volumes about the merit of the group's ideas.