The shootings last month in Newtown, CT, shocked people around the world. Twenty beautiful children were killed in cold blood, and six teachers and administrators trying to save them were also slain. Every parent everywhere cried inside at the atrocity.

The horror was emblematic of social, cultural, and political failures in controlling guns, addressing mental health, and raising children in a safe and healthy environment. It was shameful on many levels. But it was also a failure of scientific research, and of the political support science requires.

Politics in the United States has changed fundamentally over the past 30 years. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and its political allies have methodically shifted American politics from one of gun ownership within a civil society to the inverse — a civil society attempting to survive in a culture of gun ownership. Every state now has a law allowing concealed weapons. It’s easier to buy a gun than to buy some cold medicines.

One aspect of the political effort to turn the US into a gun culture was laid bare just before Christmas in an editorial published in JAMA by Arthur Kellerman and Fred Rivara, two public health physicians. They present a shocking and well-described perspective not available elsewhere — a story of how politics, funding, and sociopathic profiteering have combined to thwart public health research, ultimately creating a smoother path for corporate interests that exploit citizens and their lives just as cigarette manufacturers did a few decades ago — minimizing risks and dismissing deaths in order to make their money. By tying their business to freedom, gun manufacturers and their shills have been able to make incredible inroads into our political system. How much so? They’ve been able to stifle research into gun violence for more than 15 years.

Kellerman and Rivara write that in 1996, pro-gun members of Congress succeeded in eliminating the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As if defunding this center weren’t enough, the following language was added to the appropriations bill:

. . . 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.

So, the CDC lost a center devoted to injury prevention, and lost the ability to shift funds to study gun violence. Later, when other agencies tried to fund high-quality research on injury prevention, which naturally touches on firearms, Congress extended the restrictive language, ultimately applying it to all the Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The JAMA article goes on to detail other shocking national- and state-level efforts to squelch initiatives to deal with gun violence. Physicians and the military have both been subject to these initiatives — physicians in Florida were prohibited from speaking to patients about guns (this measure is currently being challenged successfully in the courts), and military officers were prohibited from discussing guns and mental health despite the shocking increase in military suicides using firearms. In addition, the recent Affordable Care Act (ACA, otherwise known as Obamacare), includes language pushed by the NRA under a headline, “Protection of Second Amendment Gun Rights.” It prohibits physicians from gathering data about their patients’ gun ownership.

This sort of extremism for the sake of guns makes no sense. As Kellerman and Rivara point out:

Injury prevention research can have real and lasting effects. Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans dying in motor vehicle crashes has decreased by 31%. Deaths from fires and drowning have been reduced even more, by 38% and 52%, respectively. This progress was achieved without banning automobiles, swimming pools, or matches. Instead, it came from translating research findings into effective interventions.

One of the false dichotomies foisted on the public by gun advocates is that gun ownership and freedom are linked. They are, but inversely, as Firmin DeBrabander wrote in the New York Times last month:

. . . [guns] insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name – that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

Another bit of foolishness extolled by gun advocates is that “an armed society is a polite society.” The insidious nature of this quote — how “polite” equates to “servile” — becomes clear when DeBrabander summarizes Michael Foucault:

. . . political and corporate interests aim at nothing less than “individualization,” since it is far easier to manipulate a collection of discrete and increasingly independent individuals than a community. Guns undermine just that – community. Their pervasive, open presence would sow apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear, all emotions that are corrosive of community and civic cooperation. To that extent, then, guns give license to autocratic government.

A “polite society” is a society under the control of an autocratic regime. A democracy is a free society in which individuals and groups can be impolite without fear of being shot for it. Guns aren’t linked to freedom. They are linked to control and fear.

I am publishing this post on New Year’s Day 2013. I don’t know how many people will read it, but I believe we can’t leave the story of Newtown behind in 2012. We must address the severe failures this tragedy exposed in our laws, politics, science, and culture.

Those beautiful, innocent children are gone forever. We remain. We must change this place for the better. To do that, we must restore funding and freedom to researchers in public health and safety, so they can help us regain and maintain a safe and civil society. That is my wish for 2013.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


27 Thoughts on "Gun Violence and the Politics of Research Funding — Suppressed Research and Tragic Outcomes"

Nice rant. In political theory this is called waving the bloody shirt. But I do not think this is the proper forum for debating gun control issues. Let’s talk about scholarly publishing.

When scientific research is squelched, it matters to the readership of this blog, which was founded to update people on trends in scientific publishing and the latest research. In this case, the tragic consequences of suppressed research are stark. There is no dodging it.

You seem to be claiming that some CDC research would have stopped this guy from going nuts? What research is that?

I’m implying that robustly funded research might have informed both public opinion and political will such that gun controls or mental health screening might have emerged which likely would have capped capacity of magazines, interfered with sales of guns to mentally unstable individuals, or both. I do not believe that is a stretch by any means. I certainly do not think people realize the depths to which the gun lobby has sunk in order to drive an agenda that is distinctly irrational, unscientific, and undemocratic. Squelching scientific research has consequences. This is a tragic illustration. Do you really believe that 15 years of silence in gun research didn’t help foster an environment that has allowed so much gun violence in the 21st century?

Indeed I see no politically viable research issue here. We are not going to do mental health screening for gun sales or any other sales, etc. (BTW the killer did not buy the guns. They belonged to his mother.) What do you even mean by “gun research”?

Let’s use our imaginations, shall we? Gun research — research on correlations between firearm ownership and firearm deaths, on mental disease and firearm use in violent crimes, on socioeconomic status and firearm ownership, on educational attainment and firearm ownership, on use of firearms for personal protection purposes vs. hunting and sport, on trends of acquiring guns from shows vs. legitimate dealers who screen, on acquisition of guns with high-capacity clips and crime-abetting features (anti-fingerprint finishes) and crime rates.

There might even be a lot more if I’m not just typing things out as they occur to me.

Your reference to informing public opinion and political will sounds exactly like a call for agency advocacy. Do you think we need a federal research program to determine that people who shoot people use guns?

Generating data is not advocacy — it is science. You can’t be sure what the data will show. Suppressing research is advocacy, because the intention is to support a particular outcome. Informing public opinion and political will is uncertain (but I do think that more data would yield more concern and caution because facts have a funny way of making life less like a comic strip and more like life), and is not advocacy. Suppressing research on firearms is advocacy. That’s clear as day.

I hate to be all nitpicky go all fact checking on you but your stat of gun violence killing 30,000 people per year is well to put it nicely misinformed and wrong, and to put it bluntly a lie. Please print a correction in your article if you value journalistic integrity. Gun murders per year equate to just over 8500 / year and 220 are justifiable homicide by private citizen and 400 are justifiable homicide by law enforcement. That gives a yearly death toll of just over 7,900 per year which granted is terrible however this means your statistic is inflated by nearly 80%. I’m curious why your paper has such an agregious error going to print? My source for these stats is the FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2011. I think you are probably just looking at the total murders in the USA which is about 12k then adding in the 17k pepole who commit SUICIDE by firearm and then saying they are all killed by gun violence. It makes me wonder if you use a term like epidemic and then it turns out your stat is wrong by 80% do we still have an epidemic? Your child under 10 is more likely to drown in the bathtub than be killed in a school shooting, that is a statistical fact ( for drownings and for murder rates).

Are you suggesting suicide by gun is not “gun violence”? If so, I find that thought rather ludicrous.

All federally funded research is ultimately managed by the political system, which is the decision making system of democracy. Every agency research program requires the approval of at least four Congressional committees, often with detailed guidance. Every agency is headed and staffed by political appointees. That programs not become advocates for a one sided cause is always a concern, especially when the topic is politically sensitive, which just means that a lot of people care both ways. It sounds like NCIPC was deemed out of control when it comes to gun control.

Ultimately, yes. But to have Congressional prohibitions? That’s another level of interference entirely.

Prohibiting advocacy is not prohibiting research. Every agency has a tendency to indulge in advocacy because of its mission. It is Congress’s job to curb this tendency. Given that the House and Admin are on opposite sides and both have strong policy feelings we can expect a lot of this in the next two years. Keep in mind that Congress, especially the House, is in charge of the money. Of course they also prohibit research from time to time, as is their right and duty. But the language you cite only prohibits advocacy.

Let’s get real here. The language was pitched as you describe but with the full knowledge that the chilling effect would in reality stifle research. Tie that to a budget cut of exactly the size of the agency that was researching firearms at the same time, and the message to the CDC was very clear. And in conjunction with other statements, stipulations, and budget cuts, it was clearly a movement to drain any research away that might interfere with what gun advocates wanted — to sell more, and more dangerous, guns.

Research without effective communication of the results is worthless. Research institutes are bound by their mission to promote understanding of the research. Advocacy is nothing more than the effective communication of research findings of note to the people it will benefit the most. If the findings shed light upon root causes of gun violence, it is ridiculous policy to block dissemination of that information to the public.

Are these are the same Congressional committees that use bible verses to refute scientific data? Good luck getting sane decisions from them…

Calling this a rant discredits the data to which Drs. Rivara and Kellerman refer. Withholding funding on violence prevention research is counterintutive; would you withhold funding on cancer prevention? In the words of the late Ann Landers: Wake up and smell the coffee!

I did not call the Rivara and Kellerman editorial a rant. Kent’s article is a rant because it is emotional and hyperbolic. As for funding violence prevention research it would depend on the research, as with all research funding. Given that violence is intentional I am skeptical that it can be prevented like a disease. But I would have to see the proposals.

Emotional and hyperbolic? This article performs a very rational dissection of the way the NRA has injected itself into politics and how its influence is corroding the idea of free expression rather than fostering it.

Violence is as intentional as is our tendency to overindulge (e.g., in foods high in sugar and fat) and underestimate risk (when we drive too fast or under the influence)—in other words, it’s not intentional—it’s part of our nature. A healthy society finds way to regulate our dispositions with laws based on sound research into why we do these things, and this article sheds light on how research into gun violence has been systematically suppressed by strong business interests. To describe it as “emotional and hyperbolic” is, well, emotional and hyperbolic.

Well, David, I’m sorry to have to say this to you, but there’s a wealth of empirical evidence from Western Europe, Israel and Australia that shows that gun violence can be reduced to the margins (gang related violence mostly) via a robust program of weapon regulation. Granted, none of the countries have to square the regulations with the equivalent of the second amendment but it can and is done. Note that both Switzerland and Israel also have high levels of citizen gun ownership.

It’s easy to look at the US and shake one’s head at the regularity of these atrocities. I don’t want to do that, we all have core beliefs that define our sense of being, and certainly amongst some my US relatives, gun ownership is a core belief. But here is ‘your’ hard choice… Choose to accept the dead of Newtown and the next poor anonymous town to suffer, as part and parcel of the second amendment… Or look at research into how to start bringing down the numbers. There’s only one conclusion to draw from those who wish to stymie research…

Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox have written a thoughtful, provocative, strong editorial on the intersection of politics and science:

It’s well worth a read in the context not only of this debate, but others where ideology and dogma seek to prevent the use of a falsifiable hypothesis.

Thank you for offering some outside perspective. America fails to realize how the rest of the world sees its love of guns as bordering on the absurd — if not outright absurd. That love, based as it is on a constitution that is centuries old and considered by many to be God-given, signifies how anachronistic these gun values are. By the way, America is the only nation in the world that has not redrafted its constitution to reflect modern times.

Thanks for passing on this information including the JAMA commentary. It’s neither surprising nor unexpected that the Gun Lobby would target gun research in the manner of the tobacco industry. However, the more these actions are exposed the more we can appreciate how comprehensive the advocacy of guns is in the U.S.. That Congress plays a role in the suppression of research on gun violence and its effective communication in the form of “advocacy”, when each year 30,000 people die of gun violence in the U.S., is a despicable chapter that deserves to be exposed. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, passed and signed into law in 1995, is another arm of the story that should be revisited and reconsidered. It suppresses liability for gun manufacturers and distributors, a legal option for victims of gun violence that could play an important role in curbing the insane proliferation of guns in our society.

A certain supposedly erudite and otherwise well-educated segment of society wishes to address all behavioral issues by instituting more and more external controls. In the question of weapons — it is not a question of gun control — but one of self-control — and therefore a problem which requires sufficiently developed levels of self-awareness and consciousness. Therein lies the rub — that same erudite and well-educated segment of society has derivative power which arises from their vociferous support of the status quo in politics. The ruling political classes do not want the masses to exercise self-control — they require the individual to relinquish this to the State in exchange for care and tending. Power requires it. This is a political issue, not a scientific issue. There is no proliferation of guns, only a dearth of consciousness. Perhaps a bit more attentiveness to Orwell and Huxley might be of some valuable aid to the understanding.

Over 50% of the American people want stricter gun control laws in recent polls. This indicates a surge in a common sense understanding of how only better control of manufacture and sale of assault weapons will result in stopping the kinds of massacres of young people and adults we have seen recently. All legislators in Washington now have a decision to make; do what is best for the safety of the children in America or bow to the lobbyists for gun manufacturers like the NRA who in effect support the murderers of Americas children in their wholesale slaughters via semi-automatic weapons.

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