Politics & Policy

Reviving the CDC’s Gun-Factoid Factory

With the president’s okay, the agency resumes business as usual.

In 1863 President Lincoln signed a congressional charter creating the National Academy of Sciences. Now, 150 years later, President Obama is enlisting NAS to implement an item in his January 16 plan to change the lives of America’s 100 million gun owners. He has directed the Centers for Disease Control to resume research on gun injuries and deaths, and the NAS’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) convened a public workshop last week specifically tasked with shaping the direction of the CDC’s firearm research.

Government-funded gun research was openly biased in the 1990s. CDC officials unabashedly supported gun bans, used CDC funds to advocate strict gun control, and poured millions of taxpayer dollars into funding “research” that was in fact advocacy — thinly disguised medical-journal hit pieces against gun ownership. Congress investigated and in 1997 forbade the use of CDC funds “to advocate or promote gun control.”

This week’s IOM workshop (which I attended via webcast) was moderated and mostly led by longtime anti-gun researchers. “We’ve suffered through 20 years,” complained Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg (yes, that Bloomberg) School of Public Health. He was referring to the period — 16 years, actually — since Congress cut off federal funding for his project’s research on guns, which never seemed to find anything good about guns or gun owners.

David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and author of the book Private Guns, Public Health, claimed that “we know very, very little about the deterrent effects of guns,” even as criminologist Gary Kleck, an award-winning IOM committee member and the acclaimed author of the definitive research on that subject, looked on from the audience. Kleck’s work shows that many people use guns to defend against attackers every year.

Hemenway’s Harvard colleague Matthew Miller, an injury-control researcher with a medical degree, argued the case for using auto-injury-reduction measures as a model for reducing firearm injuries. He didn’t say how this would work, since auto injuries are almost all accidental and firearm injuries are almost all intentional.

Julia da Silva, director of the Violence Prevention Office at the American Psychological Association, revealed the typical academic worldview, asserting that “gun violence is an extreme expression of aggression and conflict resolution.” To some, yes. To a career criminal, it’s just a way of getting what he wants. Ms. da Silva didn’t even mention legitimate self-defense against such aggression as a use for a firearm.

In a personal note, National Institute of Justice director Greg Ridgeway fondly recalled his days as a RAND Corporation “gun violence” researcher, during which he collaborated with Garen Wintemute. Wintemute, a University of California emergency physician, has made a career of writing damning articles in medical journals about guns.

Ridgeway put the audience on notice that his agency has made research into user-authenticated guns — which can be fired only by the designated lawful owner — a priority. This technology sounds reasonable, no? But what if a homeowner’s spouse needs to use a gun to defend against a home invasion if the owner is injured? Or what if the gun’s verification software crashes?

The fact that this technology still doesn’t exist after a decade of research hasn’t stopped state legislators from making laws about it. A California senate committee just approved a bill that would make conventional guns illegal to sell if user-authenticated guns become a reality. If gun manufacturers decline to produce guns with this technology or to periodically shepherd it through California’s “safe gun” test hurdles, that’s just too bad for California’s would-be gun owners.

The IOM workshop did allow a few voices from the pro-gun-rights side. The NRA’s John Frazer gently reminded the assembled tweak-prone scientists that cost-benefit analyses of gun ownership are of limited value, since gun ownership is a fundamental right.

Independence Institute senior fellow and former NRA research director Paul Blackman recalled the CDC’s previous gun research as “not quite textbook epidemiology.” He also called for research priorities to shift from the minutiae of guns to the real problem — violent crime.

Any claims to objectivity were severely compromised by the absence of John Lott, the foremost researcher of the effects of gun ownership on crime. Lott has a long and distinguished academic career in firearm research, but he was not invited. It is not surprising that a group of academics who view guns as a modern scourge would disdain any contribution by Lott.

Overall, the workshop reflected the presidential mandate to restart the CDC gun-research machine: It was business as usual after a 16-year hiatus. The conference’s leaders brought to the meeting their academic’s jaundiced view of guns as a dangerous virus to be studied with a view toward its control. Will Congress step in to enforce the law it wrote 16 years ago? If not, the CDC will work again to, in the words of former CDC gun research director Mark Rosenberg, persuade Americans to view guns as “dirty, deadly – and banned.”

— Timothy Wheeler, M.D., is director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a project of the Second Amendment Foundation.


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