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 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
updated 6:41 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
updated 11:49 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
updated 12:59 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
updated 1:49 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
updated 7:33 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
updated 2:14 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
updated 11:26 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
updated 6:01 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
updated 2:24 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT