Gun research a public health priority

By Hannah Sparks

(Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)
(Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

Though crime rates are dropping in the United States overall, gun violence will replace car accidents as the top cause of death for Americans ages 15-24 next year, according to ThinkProgress. This fact may elicit some mild surprise, but it’s hardly shocking given the nature of truly informed firearm debate in the United States, which hardly seems to exist. In public discourse, the tangible facts about the true danger guns present are drowned out by knee-jerk reactions to sensationalized news stories and cries for individual rights. The issue of public safety, an equally if not more important talking point, deserves more time than it gets.

Questions of public safety often seem to lead to immediate action, while overtly politicized issues of any kind are left to rot in ceaseless debate. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of young people killed in car accidents in the United States fell from around 12,000 to just more than 7,000 due to a concerted effort by car manufacturers, legislators and other groups to improve car safety. Though car accidents still kill people every day, all in all, the multi-pronged effort to make the roads safer – whether by building cars differently or passing stricter drunk driving laws – was a success.

Gun control and safety advocates, on the other hand, cannot say the same of their efforts to curb another deadly everyday occurrence, shooting deaths. This isn’t entirely their fault, however; in this case, the influential groups actually capable of bringing about positive change seem to be interested in doing anything but that.

Most prominently exemplified by the NRA, the formidable pro-gun lobby holds immense sway over Congress. Since the early 1990s, the NRA alone has spent over $100 million on lobbying, campaigning and other political activities. It has been money well spent, for them: according to the Washington Post, during the 2010 midterm elections, “80 percent of the 307 House and Senate backed by the NRA were victorious … [and] about half of incoming House members got NRA backing.”

And as the logic goes, when the NRA rubs your back, you rub theirs.

Run-of-the-mill governmental corruption aside, the gun lobby wields its power in more insidious, blatantly harmful ways. One of its worst tactics is stymieing government research into gun violence from a public health perspective. The lobby’s first target was the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was conducting important data collection on gun violence in the mid-1990s.

Members of Congress allied with the gun lobby altered funding for the CDC in a way that explicitly prevented it from advocating for gun control. Recently, the National Institutes for Health has gotten similar treatment from Congressional Republicans for similar research. Funding for studies by public institutions like these is all but dry, and private researchers just can’t do the same kind of work as the CDC and NIH do.

This lack of long-term epidemiological research, which the CDC was engaged in, especially in an era replete with data on gun violence, skews the debate, as the amount of real information we have about guns is tainted by rhetoric. Rather than taking a broad view of how guns typically impact their owners and those around them, we focus more attention than is statistically necessary on exceptional cases, like mass shootings or the threat of gun-confiscating government officials.

Focusing on exceptions ignores the rule: everyday violence takes more lives and constitutes an arguably bigger threat to our society and our personal safety than either mass murderers or an overbearing, draconian government.

We may not know for sure what motivates mass murders, but what we do have is numbers. With those numbers comes the ability to research trends into gun violence – if only the NRA would allow it. As Chelsea Parsons writes at ThinkProgress, “without this research, policymakers, legislators, community leaders, and parents are left without much direction regarding how to best protect children and teenagers from gun violence.”

And so we don’t know what the solution is. We don’t know how to address the fact that the most well-armed U.S. states see the most gun violence. Or, for that matter, how to deal with the fact that more guns are being bought now than ever before, but that the total number of gun owners remains largely unchanged. Or even how we would come to terms with the most crushing bit of data, that, according to Mother Jones, “for every time a gun is used in self-defense in the home, there are 7 assaults or murders, 11 suicide attempts, and 4 accidents involving guns in or around a home.”

So much for standing your ground.

But, as the decrease in car accident deaths shows, the world becomes a safer place when cooperative groups of individuals and institutions, public and private, can identify dangers and troubleshoot for their consequences. Gun control isn’t solely a matter of individual rights; it’s an issue of public safety. And as long as public institutions are prevented from doing the necessary research due to political grandstanding, the public is not as safe as it should be.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]