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 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT