A Most Blatant Variety of Science Denial
There have been 42 school shootings in the U.S. so far this year. Last week, 10 people were killed at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. There have been (minimally) nearly 40,000 incidents of gun violence in the US over the last year. In communities across the country, students have lost classmates to gun violence, with some classrooms consisting entirely of students who have lost a friend or family member to guns. That experience carries long and lasting effects on the students, scarring them for years to come.
Unfortunately, we don’t know as much as we should about these broader effects of gun violence, nor its causes. Part of the reason, as Maggie Koerth-Baker explored in a pair of fascinating essays in 2013, is that science is hard. A 2004 report from the National Academy of Sciences highlighted inadequate data collection and unresolved methodological questions as barriers to effective policymaking. But many of those scientific challenges arise because of ideologically-driven barriers erected by the gun lobby in Congress.
In 1996, Congress passed a law specifying “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.” That has been interpreted as a barrier on research involving guns (out of fear that any research looking at the public health effects of guns would become a target for the gun lobby). A similar provision was passed in 2011, placing the same gag order on the Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, the FBI and ATF are restricted from retaining data on gun sales which might allow researchers, lawmakers, and law enforcement to understand how guns are used and trafficked (for instance, tracking guns recovered at crime scenes through their previous ownership).
How would we react if Big Tobacco blocked research on the effects of smoking on public health? What would we do if the religious right zeroed out federal funding for research on evolution or the Congress blocked federal research on climate change? The idea that Congress would forbid a line of research out of ideological fear of the results that research might reach should scare anyone, regardless of our views on gun control. However we as a society choose to regulate firearms, surely that decision should be informed by science and evidence. For the sake of our schools, our communities, and our nation, we deserve the best possible science, not political barriers.