Science, Guns, and Democracy

January 8, 2013
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

Slate.com 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 CNN.com, 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.