MILWAUKEE – Nearly as many Americans die from guns as from car crashes each year. We know plenty about the second problem and far less about the first. A scarcity of research on how to prevent gun violence has left policymakers shooting in the dark as they craft gun control measures without much evidence of what works.
That could change with President Obama’s order Wednesday to ease research restrictions pushed through long ago by the gun lobby. The White House declared that a 1996 law banning use of money to advocate or promote gun control should not keep the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies from doing any work on the topic.
Obama can do only so much, though. Several experts say Congress will have to be on board before anything much changes, especially when it comes to spending money.
Many have called for a public health approach to gun violence like the highway safety measures, product changes and driving laws that slashed deaths from car crashes decades ago even as the number of vehicles on the road rose.
The answer wasn’t taking away cars, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
However, while much is known about vehicles and victims in crashes, similar details are lacking about gun violence.
How many people own firearms in various cities and what types.
What states have the highest proportion of gun ownership.
Whether gun ownership correlates with homicide rates in a city.
How many guns used in homicides were bought legally.
Where juveniles involved in gun fatalities got their weapons.
What factors contribute to shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn., that killed 26 people at a school.
If an airplane crashed today with 20 children and six adults, there would be a full-scale investigation of the causes, and it would be linked to previous research, said Dr. Stephen Hargarten, director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
There’s no such system that’s comparable to that for gun violence, he said.
One reason is changes pushed by the National Rifle Association and its allies in 1996, a few years after a major study showed that people who lived in homes with firearms were more likely to be homicide or suicide victims. A rule tacked onto appropriations for the Department of Health and Human Services barred use of funds for the advocacy or promotion of gun control.
Also, at the gun group’s urging, U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, led an effort to remove $2.6 million from the CDC’s injury prevention center, which had led most of the research on guns. The money was later restored but earmarked for brain injury research.
What the NRA did was basically terrorize the research community and terrorize the CDC, said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who headed the CDC’s injury center at the time. They didn’t want the data to be collected because they were threatened by what the data were showing.
Dickey and Rosenberg said they have modified their views over time and now both agree that research is needed.