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Blackout: How the NRA suppressed gun violence research

In 1993, a group of researchers published a study that challenged the most basic assumptions of many gun owners: That owning a gun makes you safer.
(Photo by Alex Brandon/AP Photo/File)

In 1993, a group of researchers published a study that challenged the most basic assumptions of many gun owners: That owning a gun makes you safer.

The study, rigorously conducted by ten credentialed experts, and appearing in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, found instead that the reverse is true. “Although firearms are often kept in homes for personal protection, this study shows that the practice is counter-productive,” the authors wrote. “Our data indicate that keeping a gun in the home is independently associated with an increase in the risk of homicide in the home.”

The previous year, the same researchers had published a similar study finding the same link between gun ownership and suicide. Both studies were funded by the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Arthur Kellermann, who was the lead researcher on the studies, said they weren’t intended as briefs for gun control, but simply to provide information that could help people make rational, evidence-based decisions about whether to keep a weapon at home.

“This was about whether you want to have a loaded handgun in a house with a curious 5-year-old, or an angry spouse, or a depressed grandparent who may be contemplating suicide,” Kellermann, a Tennessee native who says he learned to shoot a gun at the age of 10 and now directs the RAND Corporation’s health research division, told in an interview.

Even so, the gun-rights community reacted as if the studies were a declaration of war. Calling the research flawed and politically motivated, it launched a campaign to pressure government agencies not to fund further work on gun violence.

That pushback from gun-rights supporters sent a not-so-subtle message to the CDC—as well as any other government agency thinking of funding gun violence research, Kellerman said: “You toucha this topic, I breaka your face."

The result: Nearly two decades later, with Washington mulling gun-violence prevention measures in the wake of last month’s Newtown, Conn. shooting, policymakers find themselves hampered by a lack of objective, scientific information on one of the country’s major public health threats—one which costs the country 31,000 lives and an estimated $100 billion per year. That has left today's policymakers flying virtually blind.

In a letter sent Thursday to Vice President Biden, who’s heading the White House task force on gun violence, a group of crime, medical, and public health researchers urged him to address the problem. “The tragedy of gun violence is compounded by the fact that the usual methods for addressing a public health and safety threat of this magnitude—collection of basic data, scientific inquiry, policy formation, policy analysis and rigorous evaluation—are, because of politically-motivated constraints, extremely difficult in the area of firearm research,” they wrote.

Biden himself addressed the issue before meeting with gun-rights supporters the same day. According to a White House pool report of the appearance, he said he’d had talks on “the whole question of the ability of any federal agency to do any research on the issue of gun violence,” and “compared the current limits on federal data gathering with the 1970s restrictions on federal research over the cause of traffic fatalities."

Until the 1990s, research into gun violence wasn’t a threat to the gun lobby, because it essentially didn’t exist. Most policymakers and public-health specialists viewed gun injuries simply as accidents that couldn’t be prevented.

But a group of CDC researchers disagreed, viewing gun injuries instead as predictable and preventable—and seeing a desperate need for rigorous research into how reduce them.

“We said, there’s two injuries that are the leading cause of death in the U.S. right now: cars and guns,” recalled Mark Rosenberg, who helped establish the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), in part to study gun violence. “We spend hundreds of millions on cars, we spend nothing on guns.”

And so, the NCIPC began collecting data on gun violence, as well as funding outside research on the subject, including the two studies led by Kellermann. “It was producing very, very helpful information,” said Rosenberg.

But in doing so, thanks in part to the Kellerman studies, the agency provoked the ire of the gun lobby. After Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, lawmakers allied with the NRA zeroed in on the NCIPC. “There was an immediate push not just to stop gun research, but to terminate the entire center,” Kellermann recounted.

Ultimately, NCIPC survived, but in 1996, Rep. Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican and the NRA’s point man in Congress, engineered an effort to cut $2.6 million from its budget—exactly the amount it had spent on gun violence research the previous year. (The funding was later restored by the Senate, but earmarked for traumatic brain injury, ensuring it couldn’t be used for gun violence work.) And the following sentence was added to the law funding CDC: “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.”

“It terrorized the bureaucracy and it terrorized the research community,” Rosenberg said of the episode. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

The message appears to have been received. As the researchers’ letter to Biden noted, over the last 40 years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has provided 486 research awards to study cholera, diphtheria, polio, or rabies, and just three to study gun violence, even though during that period, there have been more than four million gun-violence injuries—almost 2000 times more than the number of documented cases of those diseases.

After the government largely withdrew from financing gun violence research, private foundations picked up some of the slack for a while, researchers say. But they didn't come close to making up the difference. Today, Rosenberg said, there’s “substantially less money available for [gun-violence] research.”

In a sign of just how much juice gun groups now have at the CDC, the agency asks researchers to let it know any time they’re publishing something on firearms—then gives the NRA a heads up, The New York Times reported in 2011.

It’s not just the CDC that’s been hamstrung by the gun lobby. In 2003, Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican, inserted an amendment into the law funding the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, restricting its ability to release firearms trace data. The data had previously been used to develop policies to combat illegal gun trafficking. In their letter to Biden, the researchers urged that those restrictions be lifted.

To some, the NRA’s effort to crack down on research it finds politically inconvenient is of a piece with what’s been called the “war on science” launched by the broader conservative moment, much of which denies global warming and evolution.

“I think they want to suppress information that doesn’t support their ideological position,” said Rosenberg, referring to the gun lobby.

Perhaps more important, the virtual research blackout has meant that, as Congress and the Obama administration try to craft legislation that will reduce gun violence, they have little empirical data to guide them. Common sense suggests that measures like banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, or improving background checks, should have a positive impact. But without much hard information to rely on, policymakers are essentially just guessing.

“The studies that need to be done need to focus on what works,” said Rosenberg. “Does gun registration work? How do you do it? Does licensing of gun owners work? Does limiting the types of weapons that can be purchased work?"

"If you really want to find out what works," he added, "you have to do research."