Like a lot of people who follow the gun debate, I was surprised to learn earlier this year that for more than a decade, Congress has made it nearly impossible for our premier federal health research institutions to study gun violence.
That became evident when President Obama announced his series of executive orders in response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementaryschool in Newtown, Conn.
In one of those orders, he directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other scientific agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services to “conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it.”
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, he directed, “shall begin identifying the most pressing research questions with the greatest potential public health impact, and by assessing existing public health interventions being implemented across the Nation to prevent gun violence.”
With more than 30,000 gun deaths a year, plus an additional 75,000 or so gun injuries, how is it possible the feds weren’t already studying the phenomenon?
Politics, of course.
In 1996, the Republican Congress decided that the $2.5 million or so that the feds were investing in gun violence research might be used “to advocate or promote gun control” and therefore should be directed elsewhere.
“Technically, the ban was only on ‘advocating or promoting’ gun control, said Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician who runs the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. “But I believe the thinking was this: If you are an interest that might be harmed by advocating or promoting gun control, and solid research might be used to reform firearm policy, you might be threatened. So clearly, the thing is to prevent the research in the first place.”
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley probably summed up the pro-gun position on gun violence health research best, when, according to NPR, he said recently on the Senate floor, “Gun violence is not a disease. And lawful gun ownership is not a disease. It is a constitutionally protected, individual right.”
While it may be true that gun violence is not a disease, strictly speaking, “It isa health problem,” Wintemute said, “and we know that the sort of interventions that are effective for other health problems—like malaria, cancer and motor vehicle injuries-- are effective here, too.”
Among the things it would be handy to know, he said: The basic epidemiology of gun violence. What guns are involved? What people? What are the risk factors? How are different regions of the country affected differently by gun violence?
Maybe we’ll eventually have a handle on all that. In the meantime, one thing we do have a handle on is how Californians feel about gun laws.
On Friday, The Times’ Seema Mehta reported that Californians are “overwhelmingly” in favor of a federal assault weapons ban (which died in the Senate this week lest it prevent other gun measures from passing), as well as background checks for all gun purchases, tougher penalties for crimes involving guns, and better ways of keeping guns from people with severe mental illness.
She also noted that Californians also favor state proposals that would prohibit the possession of large-capacity magazines, require background checks for purchasing ammunition and require all gun owners to be registered, licensed and insured.
It wasn’t just non-gun owners and liberals who embraced the stricter measures, the USC Dornsife/L.A. Times Poll found. California gun owners and conservatives also supported them.
Gun rights advocates are watching closely what happens in California.
They contend a law like the proposed insurance requirement would not pass Constitutional muster.
“We are seeing these proposals that would require gun owners to have a liability policy to have a firearm,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “No such policy will exist, nor will it ever exist, because insurance doesn’t cover crime or intentional torts. These are just being done to create another barrier to individuals purchasing firearms.”