Obama Gun Proposals Praised by Scientists

An assortment of handguns.
An assortment of handguns. (Image credit: GunNewsDaily.com)

President Barack Obama's proposals for tackling gun violence are drawing praise from scientists, who particularly support Obama's lifting of bans on federal gun research.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been barred from supporting research into gun violence since the 1990s, when Congress inserted language into budgetary legislation forbidding the agency from using money to "advocate or promote gun control." Because research into the causes of gun crime could potentially be used to do just that, the agency froze its gun violence research program. The National Institutes of Health has operated under similar restrictions since 2011.

Obama announced today (Jan. 16) that he would sign a presidential memorandum informing the CDC that the language in the budgetary bill does not legally prevent gun research. He also said he will push for an additional $10 million in CDC funding in 2014 earmarked for research on the causes of gun violence, including potential links with video games and media. The move won acclaim from researchers.

"I'm thrilled that it received such a high priority," said Jerome Kassirer, a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine and a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Having an understanding of the best available scientific information on a topic is necessary for the best informed decision-making," said Michael Halpern, the program manager for scientific integrity at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit that advocates the use of scientific research in solving policy problems. 

Other researchers said Obama's proposals to expand background checks and ban the manufacture of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, inspired by mass shootings at Newtown, Conn., and elsewhere, also had potential to work.

The proposed legislation "is eminently sensible and certainly can do nothing but good," said Matthew Miller, a professor of health policy and management at Harvard University, who has studied gun homicides and suicides. [The History of Human Aggression]

Obama's gun proposals

The proposals Obama outlined range from executive actions that can be enacted immediately, such as the CDC research order, to legislation that would require congressional approval.

Among the latter are efforts to renew and strengthen a ban on military-style assault weapons and to ban high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. A senior administration official told reporters that neither ban would involved efforts to get existing items off the street, but would prohibit the manufacture of new assault weapons and magazines.

Obama also proposed expanding the background check system so that all gun sales, even those by private sellers, require a background check. The administration also plans to push states to participate more fully in the background check system. For example, one senior official told reporters that 17 states have reported fewer than 10 people to the national database as ineligible to purchase guns on mental health grounds, almost certainly not a full accounting of those actually legally prohibited from buying firearms.[The 10 Most Controversial Psychiatric Disorders]

The plans also include more resources for schools to hire counselors and police officers, Obama said.

Praise and concerns

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Public Health Association (APHA) responded with enthusiasm to the proposals.

"Today’s life-saving recommendations include a ban on sales of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, mandatory background checks for all gun purchases and measures to improve access to mental health in this country among other important proposals," Georges Benjamin, the head of the APHA, said in a statement. "They hold tremendous promise for creating safer, healthier communities and deserve our nation's unwavering support."

The AAP also praised Obama's multipronged approach.

"In addition to addressing firearm regulations, we must improve access to quality mental health care both to help prevent violent acts and to assist victims of trauma," AAP president Thomas McInrny said in a statement.

The Union of Concerned Scientists' Halpern said that Congressional action is needed to supplement the executive orders. In particular, he told LiveScience, Congress should join the president in encouraging the CDC and other federal agencies to research guns in order to make scientists "truly feel comfortable asking the most contentious questions."

Other areas of the proposals require a careful touch, Harvard's Miller told LiveScience. The research funding should be accompanied by efforts to educate the public about what is known about gun violence, he said, such as the statistical fact that a gun in the home is more likely to be used in a suicide or against a family member than it is in stopping an intruder. Preventive measures should also target suicides, which make up two-thirds of gun deaths in America, Miller said. 

At the same time, he said, the expansion of background checks should be done carefully to ensure that people aren't discouraged from seeking help for common mental disorders for fear of being reported to a firearms registry.

"The vast majority of people with mental illnesses who do not have accompanying substance abuse problems are not more violent than your average American," Miller said. "We have to be very careful about stigmatizing people."

In response to the proposals, the National Rifle Association (NRA) issued a statement downplaying the need for gun control in response to shootings such as the one in Newtown, Conn.

"Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation," the NRA wrote. "Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.