Skip to main content

Let's take politics out of gun research

By Michael Halpern, Special to CNN
updated 4:24 PM EST, Tue January 8, 2013
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
updated 3:30 AM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT