Editorial

Why is the United States such a gun-happy society? It's time to find out

Bang, bang, we're dead.

More than 196,000 people died of gunshot wounds in the United States between 2009 and 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 400,000 suffered nonfatal gunshot wounds from 2009 to 2013 (the last year for which that data is available). Nearly 600,000 victims in all, from toddlers picking up unattended guns to suicides to domestic violence casualties to those killed in mass shootings.

Why is the United States such a gun-happy society? Are there demographic or other factors that distinguish people who use firearms against others? What effect do gun-control laws have on gun violence? These are among the many questions that call out for serious independent inquiry. But few such studies are done, primarily because of an NRA-inspired bit of legislation that in 1996 stripped the CDC, the obvious federal agency to explore the public health aspects of gun violence, of the ability to conduct any research that would “advocate or promote gun control.”

It's reprehensible that a single lobbying group wields that kind of power — and has had such a disastrous impact on public safety. According to a January report by the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. has only 5% of the world's population but as much as half of the world's civilian-owned firearms. Not surprisingly, our gun homicide rate far exceeds those of other developed nations.

Yet the agency charged with conducting scientific research on public health is effectively muzzled, out of fear that a study might be perceived as promoting or advocating gun control. Only a relative handful of academics nationwide regularly try to analyze gun-violence data.

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California may be able to fill in some of the knowledge gap. State Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) is pushing a bill that would direct the University of California to create a research center devoted to studying the causes and effects of firearm-related violence. It would be up to UC officials — who have yet to take a stand on the measure — to determine where to locate the center. But proponents say it likely would expand on a small program at UC Davis overseen by Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, one of a relatively small number of gun-violence researchers in the country.

Wolk hopes she can persuade the Legislature to seed the center with $5 million over five years to get it up and running as a magnet for research projects funded by grants and other outside sources. California, with some of the nation's toughest gun laws, already collects data on crimes and gun ownership that could fuel meaningful research.

Research into gun violence should be a national priority, and a national responsibility. But the only thing that responsibility and the NRA have in common is the letter “r.” This isn't about the big bad government seizing the guns of self-anointed patriots. It's about research into the causes and effects of gun violence and how to better protect individuals and communities, as well as data-driven analysis of which policies work.

The California Legislature should move ahead — as should other states — to help researchers better understand a problem that has destroyed so many lives.

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 29, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Understanding gun violence" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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