Science, Guns, and Democracy

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | January 8, 2013, 2:54 pm EDT
Bookmark and Share is using crowdsourcing to tally the deaths from gun violence since the December 14 Newtown shooting. It’s an interesting approach, and makes clear that people are hungry for data about this issue. To reduce gun violence in the United States, we need good scientific research that points us in the right direction. But as I outlined today in an opinion piece on, Congress continues to work to prevent government research related to firearms. 

Weapons in a gun store

Congress has limited the ability of many government scientists–and even scientists who are funded by government entities, like the National Institutes of Health–to conduct research into gun violence prevention. These restrictions should be lifted. Photo: Flickr user Mike Saechang.

Incredibly, gun research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ground to a halt in the mid-1990s after Congress inserted language in a funding bill that put the squeeze on the agency. Similar language was used in 2011 to extend this prohibition to all agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health. Even Obamacare contained provisions that limit research: the new health care law restricts doctors’ ability to collect data about patients’ gun use. The Washington Post and the Journal of the American Medical Association have provided good recent summaries.

Policy makers who are grappling with gun violence prevention would be well served by doing all they can to remove these restrictions.

We also need to create space for scientists to share their research with policy makers. Currently, that discussion is broken. We can’t even agree on when or if we should have a conversation about preventing violence. Some advocates say we must have a debate now. Their opponents accuse them of opportunism in the wake of tragedy.

These are the kinds of discussions that the Center for Science and Democracy is designed to foster. On gun violence and so many other issues, we need better connections between scientists and policy makers so that decisions are fully informed by the best available science. We also need to create an environment where decision makers and other opinion leaders adequately value science and the important contributions it can make.

To be sure, policy decisions are often made on a variety of factors. But we are all better served when science has a seat at the table.

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  • Patrick Murray

    As a student of the late Russell Weigley (“The American Way of War”), the eminent military historian, we all heard him say that the Second Amendment intended an armed citizenry. The key to his interpretation was the word “militia”. Only white men were members and were expected to have guns; there were no blacks or Indians in the militia, nor women. Furthermore, the state militias were guaranteed by the Second Amendment as protection from the federal government’s new standing army. The Founding Fathers read Latin and feared the fall of the Republic,and more recently endured the oppression of the British army. I recommend to my students reading Richard Kohn’s “Eagle and Sword: The Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America,” (1975).
    Comparing ourselves to First World nations we are an anomaly because the only national gun law that we have is the Second Amendment. Because we have a combination of federal, state, and local gun laws, the local gun law defaults to the most lenient gun law within a driving radius of about 350 miles. Most First World countries have one national gun law.

  • When I speak to a conservative, they say we have to protect our rights. Why are they still in the dark ages, gun control isn’t about their rights.. it’s about controlling weapons and in the case of semi automatic weapons, it’s about containing terrorism. Who on earth wants to protect their right to be terrorized? I would think they want to protect their rights to be free from needless acts of terror.
    We don’t need assault rifles unless we are in the military.

    • AL

      The History of Gun Control and eventual confiscation has led to the deaths of 170 MILLION people by the likes of Stalin, Hitler and Chairman Mao. Gun control is the first step towards tyranny.
      This Nation is not exempt from tyranny.
      The revolutionary war started over the British trying to confiscate the rifles of the colonists. So-called progressives overlook the degeneration of society and blame an inanimate object for horrific events. Overlooked are the violent in your face daily exposure acted out in video games, TV shows and movies. Couple this with psychotropic medications and its really not a surprise what the outcomes are.
      Currently Australia is coping with a significant rise in violent crime. Law abiding citizens forced to turn over their firearms are now at the mercy of criminals. Home invasions are on the rise and Australians are defenseless.

  • Kathy Barker

    Good article, but why stop on gun violence?

    Seems to me that the logic used to control guns is faulty if it isn’t extended to other manifestations of violence, such as war.

    We surely need more scientists speaking out on the links between gun/individual acts of violence such as shootings and rape, and with war/government sanctioned violence as well.

  • Ray Elling

    We need more and better research on gun violence. But Snow did not wait for Pasteur to discover germs before he removed the handle from the Broad Street water pump and stopped the cholera epidemic in London. Similarly, Congress and President Obama can act now to protect the American people from gun violence — before all the needed research is done.

    As a person who grew up in a family of hunters in Minnesota, I know that THREE SHOTS ARE ENOUGH! If a person wants to shoot more than three shots before reloading, just who or what do they want to kill?

    • Michael Halpern

      Thanks Ray – this brings up a very important point.

      Scientists continue to refine what we know about a topic so that we can develop better policy solutions. But the need for even more and better research should not be used as an excuse to do nothing. We can and do make policy decisions based on the best available scientific information all the time.

      Many special interests have used the excuse of the need for more study to delay public protections on everything from food safety to prescription drugs to air pollution. Certainly, there’s already sufficient research on gun violence that policymakers should use to reduce gun violence.

      Science-based policy is not an all or nothing game. As scientists incrementally learn more about the factors that lead to more gun violence, elected officials and other decision-makers can incrementally put in place policies that reduce that violence.

      Also, the solutions don’t just come from government. New technologies developed by private industry can help, too. But research can show what technologies are effective and what technologies are not.


  • Ray Elling

    We need more and better research on gun violence. But just as Snow stopped the cholera epidemic in London by closing down the Broad Street water pump, before the germ theory of disease had been discovered by Pasteur, Congress and President Obama can take action before all the research is done on gun violence.

    As a life-long hunter growing up in a family of hunters in Minnesota, i know that THREE SHOOTS ARE ENOUGH! If a person wants to shoot more that three shots before they have to reload, just who or what do they want to kill?

  • T Hodges

    Good luck with all that. I cannot have a discussion with a conservative at all if the word “science” even comes up.

  • Carolyn Hart

    Wow. I had no idea that Congress didn’t even want to know the answers to gun violence. Sad.