Expert Voices

Instead of Studying Gun Violence, Americans Just Argue About It (Op-Ed)

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Competition among women may be partly driven by smells. (Image credit: Sanjay Deva | Shutterstock)

Jeff Nesbit was the director of public affairs for two prominent federal science agencies. This article was adapted from one that first appeared in U.S. News & World Report. Nesbit contributed the article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Is gun violence a public-health epidemic?

The unfortunate truth is this: Scientists simply don't know, because hard statistics either don't exist, aren't current, aren't readily available or can't be researched nationally under the usual rules. Until a few months ago, federal science agencies were essentially barred from even studying gun violence within a public-health epidemic framework.

The United States is the only country in the world that treats gun ownership as a fundamental, human right. It's a privilege — not a right — in every other country but America. In countries like Israel and Sweden, you must prove that you have a need to own a gun before you're given a right to own one.

What prompts the public health question, over and over and over, is news coverage of the latest, horrific stories of gun violence at public places like schools. Everyone is appalled, and then forgets — until the next incident.

Right now, Americans are following the awful story of a 12-year-old who took a semi-automatic weapon from home to attack people at a middle school in Nevada — killing a teacher who was heroically trying to stop the violent act. Before that, it was the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Before that it was Newtown. And before that it was Perry Hall, Aurora, Tucson and Columbine, just to name a few. And tomorrow, it will be somewhere else.

Americans now own more than 300 million guns. The best available estimates in the United States — and they are just statistical estimates — indicate that there are about 30,000 firearms-related deaths in the U.S. each year, and more than twice that number of non-fatal incidents involving firearms. The United States has the highest number of gun-related injuries of any developed country in the world, according to those estimates.

Is that a gun violence epidemic? Can it be viewed and approached like an epidemic? Again, Americans don't know because our federal leaders — and especially the leadership of federal science agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — have largely shied away from studying it in this fashion for fear of the political repercussions.

It's long past the time for at least this part of the public debate regarding gun rights to stop. Long, long past time. There can be no harm in knowing how many people die each year from firearms, where those pockets of gun violence really are, and whether there are ways to mitigate or interrupt the violence in those pockets.

It's truly sad and unfortunate that the best — and, perhaps, only — place where gun deaths are tracked one by one is on a Twitter account called @GunDeaths that Slate magazine took over not long ago. It's gut-wrenching to sit and watch the tweets as they roll in, with mind-numbing sameness.

"Man shot dead in Indianapolis," read a Tweet as I began writing this paragraph. "Man, 40, shot dead in Chicago," read a second Tweet as I finished it. The first linked to a local Fox News station report. The second linked to a Chicago Tribune story.

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The @GunDeaths Twitter feed is the only real-time aggregator of gun violence. CDC's efforts to aggregate causes of mortality can take years, and even then have a tough time separating out the various components of gun violence for public-health research purposes.

It's fair to say that America is divided on the merits of citizens arming themselves with guns as a fundamental right, the Second Amendment notwithstanding. Meanwhile, however, there are some big, unanswered questions about whether we can even research gun violence as a public health epidemic, and whether it might be useful to ask them.

There are some pretty creative efforts underway that treat gun violence as if it's an epidemic. Cure Violence, with its roots in Chicago's gun violence and gang culture, tries to interrupt the violence much like public health workers try to interrupt the transmission of infectious diseases in communities.

But even Cure Violence, with all of its acclaim, is still just an experiment based largely on what its proponents believe might work. Why? Simple: Until 2013, it was virtually impossible for anyone to even take a hard, critical look nationally at whether gun violence is, in fact, a public health epidemic.

Then in April, in the middle of yet another endless and ultimately fruitless debate in Congress over gun reform, President Barack Obama lifted what was essentially a 17-year ban on federal funding for research on gun violence. Lifting the ban on researching gun violence was one of 23 actions the White House announced that it could do administratively, without congressional oversight.

CDC's last funding for research on gun violence was in 1996 — to study whether homicides are more likely to occur in households where guns are kept. But the National Rifle Association (NRA)-led gun lobby helped convince Congress to send strongly-worded language to federal science agencies like CDC, discouraging them from such research.

In its announcement, the White House said federal science agencies had overreacted to congressional oversight by cutting gun-violence research, and that the CDC does, in fact, have plenty of authority to research such issues in a public-health frame.

But while the White House's gun-violence research request was modest — just $10 million for a variety of areas of gun violence prevention — Congress will almost certainly fail to approve spending money on such research, effectively keeping the de facto ban on federal gun-violence research in place.

The NRA had a video ad criticizing the White House's efforts on gun violence in place literally as those efforts were publicly announced, and had already begun lobbying Congress to block federal spending for any public health research on gun violence.

The NRA's lobbying arm has attacked Obama's call for more gun-violence research, claiming that public-health experts wanted to study the issue just for the federal research dollars. And in an Oct. 18 opinion piece, NRA's CEO, Wayne LaPierre referred to CDC's efforts to reinstate gun-violence research as a "junk-science agenda" and even took it a step further by suggesting a deep conspiracy led by CDC bureaucrats to "demand for collection of personal, private information on all law-abiding firearm owners and our guns."

While not unexpected, this sort of hyperbole is unfortunate. Honestly, it's hard to imagine why studying the underlying, root causes of gun violence in America doesn't make sense. If it is, in fact, much like a public-health epidemic, then there are things that we can do — even if the country remains divided over the right to bear semi-automatic weapons.

Nesbit's most recent Op-Ed was "A Quiet Editorial Revolution Chooses Science Over Fiction." This Op-Ed was adapted from "Studying Gun Violence...Or Just Arguing About It," which first appeared in Nesbit's column At the Edge. U.S. News & World Report. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.