Don’t Let Scientists Get Near Your Guns!

As Kevin Drum noted late last week, the theological nature of conservative firearms idolatry has been outrageously confirmed by Republican congressional efforts to suppress federally funded research on the real-life consequences of this or that gun law regime. He and Austin Frakt have drawn attention to a Journal of the American Medical Association article by Arthur Kellermann and Frederick Rivara in response to the Newtown tragedy that should make your blood boil:

The nation might be in a better position to act if medical and public health researchers had continued to study these issues as diligently as some of us did between 1985 and 1997. But in 1996, pro-gun members of Congress mounted an all-out effort to eliminate the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although they failed to defund the center, the House of Representatives removed $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget—precisely the amount the agency had spent on firearm injury research the previous year. Funding was restored in joint conference committee, but the money was earmarked for traumatic brain injury. The effect was sharply reduced support for firearm injury research.

To ensure that the CDC and its grantees got the message, the following language was added to the final appropriation: “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out. Extramural support for firearm injury prevention research quickly dried up. Even today, 17 years after this legislative action, the CDC’s website lacks specific links to information about preventing firearm-related violence.

Restrictions on research were later extended from the CDC to all parts of the Department of Health and Human Services. And similar efforts have affected other federal and state agencies.

This isn’t an example of one of those superficially nutty-sounding research areas like the mating habits of monkeys. Injury prevention is a longstanding and legitimate part of public health research. As Kellerman and Rivara note, similar research has led to policy changes that have sharply reduced automobile related deaths and injuries, and also deaths from fires and drowning. The total ban on research dealing with firearms is unique, and only justifiable via “slippery slope” arguments where all inquiry is considered hostile.

That’s what happens when use of a lethal product is placed on a pedestal as central to fundamental liberty and fenced with tripwires and screaming sirens when anyone dares ask questions. It’s far past time for the unconditional elevation of gun rights over human rights to end.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.