Our opinion: One crucial step that could be taken to understand gun violence

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There is one immediate step that could help us understand America's obsession with guns and its repercussions on our society, well-being and sense of safety.

As Jared Keller notes for Pacific Standard Magazine, that immediate step is repealing the Dickey Amendment, the 1996 appropriations rider, named for former Rep. Jay Dickey, that effectively bans the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health from researching the causes of gun violence.

Just a few hours before the nation was forced to bear witness to yet another mass shooting, wrote Keller, a group of citizens called on legislators in Washington, D.C., to do something about gun violence. In a letter addressed to Congress, nine medical associations called for a repeal of the Dickey Amendment. This sentiment has been echoed by legislators over the years, most recently Rep. Jackie Speier of California, who wrote the nation spends "$240 million a year on traffic safety research, more than $233 million a year on food safety, and $331 million a year on the effects of tobacco, but almost nothing on firearms that kill 33,000 Americans annually."

"How could politicians design and engineer legislation to address a problem over several different political and bureaucratic regimes without first understanding what they're trying to fix in the first place?" asked Keller. Among questions that could be asked, he and others suggest, if the CDC and NIH were allowed to conduct actual studies include: Is the gun epidemic truly an epidemic? How do we define an epidemic? What is the definition of a mass shooting? Is the nation truly as awash in guns? And despite the fact that gun sales spike after mass shootings, gun ownership has actually been on the decline since 1972; so what do we really know about the state of guns in America in 2015? What works to prevent firearm injuries? Does having more citizens carry guns decrease or increase firearm deaths? Would firearm registration and licensing make inner-city residents safer or expose them to greater harm? Would a ban on military-style weapons or large-capacity magazines, or limiting access to ammunition, have saved lives in Aurora or would make it riskier for people to go to a movie?

"Even the 'mental illness' dodge traditionally offered up by conservatives in the aftermath of a shooting disaster runs into methodological problems under the post-Dickey regime; how can we begin to identify warning signs of 'mentally unstable' potential mass shooters if the CDC and NIH can't even analyze data from the past 20 years?" asked Keller.

But, as he notes, even though Dickey reversed his position in 2012, the National Rifle Association has continued to exert its influence on Congress, preventing Congress from allowing the CDC and NIH to do their jobs. That might be because the results of such studies conducted prior to the ban flew in the face of many of the NRA's assertions.

As Dickey and Mark Rosenberg noted in a 2012 column for the Washington Post, the federal government has invested billions to understand the causes of motor vehicle fatalities and, with that knowledge, has markedly reduced traffic deaths in the United States. "Since the mid-1970s, research has inspired such interventions as child restraints, seat belts, frontal air bags, a minimum drinking age and motorcycle helmets. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 366,000 lives were saved through such efforts from 1975 to 2009. Through the same scientific, evidence-based approach, our country has made progress understanding and preventing violence. ... Now a body of knowledge exists that makes it clear that an event such as the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., was not a "senseless" occurrence as random as a hurricane or earthquake but, rather, has underlying causes that can be understood and used to prevent similar mass shootings."

Nonetheless, noted Keller, Republican lawmakers continue to thwart efforts to work around the Dickey Amendment, thanks in large part to the NRA's $37.6 million in donations over the past 15-plus years.

"The NRA's stranglehold on Congress is so absolute that, despite the desperate hand-wringing over refugees and terrorism over the last several weeks, Senate Republicans rejected a bill that would have prevented suspected terrorists from legally buying guns. The date of that rejection? The day after the San Bernardino massacre."

But, as Keller notes, doing nothing has become the status quo for American gun control.

Even after the slaughter of 20 6- and 7-year-olds in Newtown, Conn., three years ago the nation couldn't get off the couch long enough to demand we do something, anything, to prevent more deaths. As the Telegraph's Dan Hodges wrote following the Charleston massacre: "Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over."


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