Politics & Policy

There’s No Ban on Studying Gun Violence

Police guard the perimeter of a shooting scene in Manhattan in 2015. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
But we should not allow gun-control advocates to medicalize guns as a public-health concern.

One of the common talking points that liberals throw around in the gun debate is that Republicans have banned even studying gun violence. So you get headlines such as “Lift the Federal Ban on Gun Violence Research” (the New Republic), or “Why Gun Violence Research Has Been Shut Down for 20 Years” (the Washington Post’s Wonkblog), or “GOP Chairman: Congress Should Rethink CDC Ban on Gun Violence Research” (The Hill), or “What’s Missing from the Gun Debate. It’s Simple: Science” (an op-ed in Politico).The reality is different, and it illustrates two contending views of how America should be governed.

To start with, nobody has been banned from anything, in the way we typically think of government bans. No law prohibits private citizens, universities, private foundations, or state governments from conducting studies of the subject. As the Federalist‘s David Harsanyi has noted:

Numerous states and private entities fund peer-reviewed studies and other research on gun violence. I know this because gun control advocates are constantly sending me studies that distort and conflate issues to help them make their arguments. My inbox is bombarded with studies and conferences and “webinars” dissecting gun violence.

We even had The New England Journal of Medicine pushing a “study” (“Reduction in Firearm Injuries during NRA Annual Conventions”) claiming to prove that gun injuries decline during NRA conventions. Here, the intent was evidently to show that the 80,000 or so NRA members who attend conventions — out of tens of millions of gun owners — are themselves the primary source of injuries. But the study’s lack of rigor (its authors admitted they had no evidence of a causal connection and were just speculating) mattered less than getting that juicy, stick-in-the-eye CNN headline meant for dispersal on social media.

Moreover, the “ban” in question applies only to the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nothing bars other arms of the federal government from collecting or disseminating information about gun crimes. Indeed, the data collected by the federal government is often the foundation for arguments made about guns, by all sides. The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which bills itself as “the United States’ primary source for criminal justice statistics,” has a mission:

To collect, analyze, publish, and disseminate information on crime, criminal offenders, victims of crime, and the operation of justice systems at all levels of government. These data are critical to federal, state, and local policymakers in combating crime and ensuring that justice is both efficient and evenhanded.

BJS publishes studies on “Firearms and Crime Statistics” at its website. Then there’s DOJ’s National Institute of Justice, which has its own section on gun violence, drawing on sources such as the National Crime Victimization Survey. If you went to the NIJ website today, you’d see a solicitation for grant applications to study “research and evaluation projects to improve the understanding, prevention, and deterrence of firearms violence, in general, and public mass shooting incidents, in particular.”

So, why are gun-control advocates up in arms (rhetorically) about the CDC? Cue the 1996 Dickey Amendment, regularly renewed by Congress, even after its author, Jay Dickey, left Congress and changed his tune on the issue, according to his 2015 interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. This amendment was attached to the funding of the CDC and provided a restriction: “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.” But the CDC does still collect its own empirical data, published regularly as part of its National Violent Death Reporting System.

The Dickey Amendment’s immediate impact was somewhat more dramatic, because of its context: Mark Rosenberg, then director at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, was using his position as a platform to push an aggressive gun-control agenda. As Harsanyi notes, Rosenberg told the New York Times in 1994:

We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes. . . . It used to be that smoking was a glamour symbol — cool, sexy, macho. Now it is dirty, deadly and banned.

The researchers Rosenberg was funding were even more strident. Dr. Katherine Christoffel, head of the “Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan,” a CDC-funded organization, said in a 1994 interview with the American Medical News:

Guns are a virus that must be eradicated. . . . They are causing an epidemic of death by gunshot, which should be treated like any epidemic. . . .You get rid of the virus, . . . get rid of the guns, get rid of the guns, get rid of the bullets, and you get rid of deaths.

As Rosenberg himself wrote in that Politico op-ed, “What’s Missing from the Gun Debate,” the result of the Dickey Amendment was to roll back his use of the CDC for that purpose:

The amendment did not explicitly prohibit the CDC from conducting gun violence research; it prohibited the CDC (and later, other federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health) from lobbying for gun control legislation. Nevertheless, the provision was a shot across the bow and had a chilling effect. A second shot was Congress’ taking away the $2.6 million that the CDC’s injury center had been spending annually to support gun violence research. The third shot was fired by CDC itself, when the agency director fired the person most closely identified with the gun violence prevention research. (That person was me.)

The Obama administration, naturally, tried to evade the Dickey Amendment as it did with so many other laws it didn’t like — via an Obama executive order. Dated January 16, 2013, the dirctive was on the topic of “Engaging in Public Health Research on the Causes and Prevention of Gun Violence.” As a result, the National Institutes of Health spent some $18 million from 2014 to 2017 on firearms studies.

So, why shouldn’t the CDC get taxpayer money to do these studies? There are two main reasons, one relating to the nature of social science in general and public health in particular — and the other relating to the nature of democratic self-government.

The social-science problem is that “public health” studies — like that NRA-convention study — can be highly subjective and ungoverned by the rigors of hard sciences that seek to test a hypothesis with results that can be replicated by other researchers. Indeed, the social sciences in general today suffer from a systemic “replication crisis,” a bias toward publishing only results that support the researcher’s hypothesis, and chronic problems with errors remaining uncorrected. All of this is well documented, yet many Americans today have elevated their trust in scientists to a level approaching religious faith. The CDC’s own description, at its website, of its approach to “violence prevention” suggests how elastic its approach is:

Public health draws on a science base that is multi-disciplinary. It relies on knowledge from a broad range of disciplines including medicine, epidemiology, sociology, psychology, criminology, education, and economics. [Emphasis added.]

That’s quite a smorgasbord from which a researcher bent on advocacy can easily choose the emphases that seem most likely to support his argument — and then roll it out to the public as if from a white-coated biochemist reporting a medical finding. Yet, like many of the fields listed — indeed, more so, given the ability to pick and choose — questions of human behavior, national and regional culture, incentives, and unintended consequences make it much harder to apply any sort of scientific standard to conclusions about causes, effects, and what would change if different policies were adopted. As Reason documented at length back in 1997, CDC and other public-health research on guns had these problems of bias and shoddiness in spades:

Serious scholars have been criticizing the CDC’s “public health” approach to gun research for years. In a presentation at the American Society of Criminology‘s 1994 meeting, for example, University of Illinois sociologist David Bordua and epidemiologist David Cowan called the public health literature on guns “advocacy based on political beliefs rather than scientific fact.” Bordua and Cowan noted that The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, the main outlets for CDC-funded studies of firearms, are consistent supporters of strict gun control. They found that “reports with findings not supporting the position of the journal are rarely cited,” “little is cited from the criminological or sociological field,” and the articles that are cited “are almost always by medical or public health researchers.”

Further, Bordua and Cowan said, “assumptions are presented as fact: that there is a causal association between gun ownership and the risk of violence, that this association is consistent across all demographic categories, and that additional legislation will reduce the prevalence of firearms and consequently reduce the incidence of violence.” They concluded that “[i]ncestuous and selective literature citations may be acceptable for political tracts, but they introduce an artificial bias into scientific publications. Stating as fact associations which may be demonstrably false is not just unscientific, it is unprincipled.” In a 1994 presentation to the Western Economics Association, State University of New York at Buffalo criminologist Lawrence Southwick compared public health firearm studies to popular articles produced by the gun lobby: “Generally the level of analysis done on each side is of a low quality. The papers published in the medical literature (which are uniformly anti-gun) are particularly poor science.”

As Bordua, Cowan, and Southwick observed, a prejudice against gun ownership pervades the public health field. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, nicely summarizes the typical attitude of her colleagues in a recent book. “My own view on gun control is simple,” she writes. “I hate guns and cannot imagine why anybody would want to own one. If I had my way, guns for sport would be registered, and all other guns would be banned.” Opposition to gun ownership is also the official position of the U.S. Public Health Service, the CDC’s parent agency. Since 1979, its goal has been “to reduce the number of handguns in private ownership,” starting with a 25 percent reduction by the turn of the century. . . .

. . . When CDC sources do cite adverse studies, they often get them wrong. In 1987 the National Institute of Justice hired two sociologists, James D. Wright and Peter H. Rossi, to assess the scholarly literature and produce an agenda for gun control. Wright and Rossi found the literature so biased and shoddy that it provided no basis for concluding anything positive about gun laws. Like Kleck, they were forced to give up their own prior faith in gun control as they researched the issue.

Naturally, if you hand over funding to people with an agenda, and you place no restrictions on its use to promote that agenda, and their work is peer-reviewed (if at all) only by people supportive of that agenda, and the underlying scientific discipline has no real methodological guardrails, you will get research not only that is biased but that gets progressively less rigorous the less supervision it can expect.

That brings me to the more fundamental point: Ours is ultimately a government in which the common people rule, not the “experts.” Democracy can be stupid, because people individually are often stupid or ignorant (even smart, educated people have many subjects on which they know little and understand less). But we value the common opinions of the people as a whole over an extended period of time for two reasons: 1) The collective experience of a lot of people makes it less likely that they’ll overlook or undervalue important things, and 2) the people will better accept the legitimacy of rules that they felt empowered in creating. Rule by a small class of like-minded experts fails both of those tests.

This is not an argument against science or expertise but rather an argument that both should be subjected to civilian oversight. Conservatives should not fear empirical data — and, as noted, after the Dickey Amendment, the federal government still collects such data. But value judgments on matters of concern to millions of ordinary citizens are ultimately the business of democracy, including the democratic enactment of constitutional protections for gun rights, which exist in the Second Amendment and in the constitutions of 44 states.

Nobody has a right to use the taxpayers’ money, free of oversight by the taxpayers’ representatives, to finance one side’s arguments and then present them as if they were the result of a dispassionate scientific endeavor.

Advocacy groups, of course, are free to gather and present all the data they want in efforts to influence the public’s decisions. But nobody has a right to use the taxpayers’ money, free of oversight by the taxpayers’ representatives, to finance one side’s arguments and then present them as if they were the result of a dispassionate scientific endeavor. We would immediately recognize the potential for bias if a pro-gun-rights study was funded by the NRA. Studies done to promote a point of view held uniformly by the CDC’s coterie of pro-gun-control public-health advocates present the same problem.

Truth, in any area of competing value judgments about human behavior, is best arrived at neither by eliminating data and expertise nor by blindly trusting them but rather by an adversarial process of informed skepticism. This is how courtrooms handle expertise, and it is how democracies should, too. Scientists are human beings, and if given power without challenge or skepticism, they will act the way human beings have always acted around power.

Putting the CDC back in the gun-violence business would collide with these insights in several ways. First, as the cigarette analogy makes clear and as President Obama’s willingness (here and elsewhere) to ignore congressional restrictions illustrates, the goal of “medicalizing” gun violence is to place regulatory and judicial actions outside the purview of Congress and the state legislatures.

The goal of medicalizing gun violence is to place regulatory and judicial actions outside the purview of Congress and the state legislatures.

Second, “mission creep” undermines the clear lines of accountability that allow our government to set staffing and funding priorities and keep the Congress in control of the laws, and the president in control of their execution. The Justice Department is properly responsible for all federal law enforcement, under the direct chain of command from the president to the attorney general, whose confirmation by the Senate and ongoing budget requests often focus on major law-enforcement priorities such as reducing gun crime. The CDC and other health agencies exist mainly to deal with controlling diseases and other natural contagions. They handle the prevention and management of possible national outbreaks, and, given the less politically charged nature of the task, they tend to operate with more independence from the hurly-burly of cultural politics. Letting the CDC invade the DOJ’s turf detracts from the focus of both agencies. And yet, any policy made on the basis of CDC studies would ultimately have to be enforced by the DOJ and other law-enforcement agencies across the country. Enforcement of laws is something few public-health researchers are competent to address.

Third, making use of the CDC’s medical credibility to bolster claims of “Science Says This” gives gun-control advocates a powerful temptation to wrest the topic out of the hands of the Justice Department. Medicalizing guns inherently biases the presentation of the data in ways that reduce perspective, because gun-control advocates combine gun crime with gun suicides and gun accidents while separating gun crime from other violent crimes (the broader focus that DOJ brings to the table), gun suicides from other suicides, and gun accidents from the broad range of other accidents with potentially dangerous vehicles, appliances, and tools — all while downplaying solutions that include policing and prosecuting tools.

By all means, let’s keep collecting data and debating its meaning. The gun debate in America will never be over; nor should it be. Even the Bill of Rights can be changed if the people are determined that some rights just aren’t worth protecting anymore. Defenders of gun ownership should not fear that debate. But we shouldn’t be delegating such important social questions to agenda-driven advocates operating behind the illusion that they are doing disinterested scientific research. We shouldn’t let them spend our money to support only one side of a debate over a right enshrined explicitly in the Constitution.


The Latest