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Laws silence research on gun violence

The tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn., have renewed the gun debate, and with inevitable rancor on all sides. There are no easy answers to the problem of gun violence in the United States, but the recent national dialogue has brought to light one matter that people on all sides of the issue should find worrisome: the inability of scientists and physicians to conduct adequate research into firearm-related injuries in our country.

Public health research has been instrumental in improving the quality of our lives, and often this type of careful research has shown that “common sense” preconceptions do not always result in good policy – just look at the ads in Life magazine from the 1940s that showed doctors encouraging people to smoke. Such ads were stopped only after researchers presented irrefutable proof of tobacco’s carcinogenic effects. Public health research usually provides an excellent return on investment; more research means better decisions regarding the quality of our lives.

A recent paper in The Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed successful efforts to block public health research into gun injuries and gun safety. For instance, in 1996 Congress eliminated funding for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention agency tasked with conducting firearm injury research. The 1996 legislation even included language that threatened investigators’ jobs if they chose to study issues related to firearm injuries. Recently, Congress extended the same restrictive language to all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including The National Institute of Health.

And those restrictions are not limited to researchers. Gun accidents are a significant cause of death and injury in the pediatric population, and pediatricians are trained to ask about the presence of guns in a household to address gun safety (just as they would ask about car seats and bicycle helmets). However, in Florida, a law was passed that subjected pediatricians to possible sanctions, including loss of their medical license, if they ask firearm-related questions. Enforcement of this law has been delayed while a court decides on its constitutionality, but similar bills have been proposed in seven other states. The JAMA paper cites more examples. It is worth reading and can be found by doing an online search on the title: “Silencing the Science on Gun Research.”

Injury-prevention research saves lives, and careful research often provides solutions that can be acceptable to all sides. The only way to get a handle on the problem – and to test possible solutions – is to get smarter about it. But since gun-injury research has been systematically blocked or defunded, we have no idea what could be accomplished.

Halting public health research is never a good idea. Imagine what would happen if someone tried to stop research on the safety of children’s toys.

Even staunch gun-rights politicians must recognize that behind-the-scenes maneuvering such as this weakens their case. The prevention of infections, the dangers of smoking, and even the utility of seat belts were all things that at one point seemed unbelievable, but careful research changed that thinking. Perhaps the same approach can find a mutually acceptable way to minimize gun-related injuries.

But our legislators need to remove the restrictions on research so that we can start studying the problem. Rep. Marlin Stutzman’s office would not respond to requests for a comment on this topic, so we don’t know what his thoughts are. The people who are trained in public health research can hopefully bring their skills to bear on this subject and help find solutions that are agreeable to everyone. But right now their hands are tied.

Dr. Jonathan D. Walker is an assistant clinical professor at Indiana University School of Medicine in Fort Wayne. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.