Science should trump politics in gun debate
It claims the lives of approximately 30,000 Americans each year. It plagues people at home, at work, at places of worship, and at play. It creates lifelong disabilities. It leaves families and communities scarred. It causes health care costs to rise dramatically.
It is gun violence, and its ills resemble a public health crisis. In the past, the federal government has rallied resources to fight public health crises. The spread of HIV/AIDS, tobacco-related deaths and motor vehicle fatalities were all met with coordinated government intervention. None of these crises were immune from controversy or ideological discourse. Eventually, though, scientific research was utilized: facts were collected, our collective understanding was expanded, response plans were developed, interventions were studied, attitudes shifted, public policies were well-informed, and regulations were established. Most importantly, lives were and continue to be saved.
Such scientific research is lacking in response to today’s gun violence epidemic. Instead, ideological debates have ensued and stalled the consideration of meaningful policies that would save thousands of lives.
Now is the time for rigorous scientific examination of the gun violence epidemic. Science has the power to gather evidence that informs this public health crisis.
As a first step, Congress must restore funding for gun violence prevention research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since 1996, Congress has attached language to the appropriations bill that funds the CDC barring the use of funding to “advocate or promote gun control.” This language, combined with cuts to the CDC budget, has essentially stifled potentially life-saving research.
The scientific community has long recognized the urgent need to summon science with its adherence to the identification, collection, and inspection of data, so that evidence may emerge and guide public policy. In a 2013 report titled “Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence” published by the National Academies, former American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) CEO Alan Leshner led a distinguished committee to set the goals, standards, and priorities for gun violence research. The report was endorsed by leading scientific organizations including the CDC, the National Academies, and AAAS. Physicians, epidemiologists, public health experts, and sociologists understand the challenge and how their expertise can – and should – be leveraged to solve the problem.
While the CDC has faced restrictions in conducting gun violence research, other institutions — including Harvard, the University of Chicago, University of California at Davis, Duke, Johns Hopkins, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Yale, and the Pentagon — have undertaken research on a span of topics, from measuring preventative and risk factors of gun violence to exploring the efficacy of “smart gun” technology to reduce death rates.
However, incomplete data is suppressing progress. Scientists and medical professionals who currently study gun violence lack validated data – data that has been the key to unlocking solutions to previous health crises. For instance, the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), which houses and analyzes data pertaining to many types of violent deaths, requires more information. Unfortunately, funding restrictions and scant support from policymakers have left NVDRS with data from only 32 states.
The restoration and expansion of CDC funding for gun violence research would enable further collaboration among scientists and facilitate the design of effective and proven interventions.
Federal agencies should coordinate on gun research and work with states to collect and share data at the national level. Scientists can help by defining the scope of the problem, designing inquiries, conducting research, and testing interventions- in other words, utilizing the very skillset they were hired for.
As people, as families, as communities, and as a nation, we need to put ideology aside and recognize that scientifically tested results can help guide decision-makers in promoting public health while preserving Second Amendment rights.
This year, we will lose an estimated 30,000 Americans to gun violence. Research can wait no longer. Our policymakers must enable scientists and society to seek the readily testable knowledge that can save lives.
Schaal is President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis.
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