The New York Times just called for a resumption of public health research on guns, noting that Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GA), whose sub-committee holds the research purse-strings, continues to oppose such funding for the CDC. Kingston, like many members of the GOP, has been facing political opposition from the right and now, while running for the Senate, is facing some serious problems about the source of some campaign cash, so the last thing he’s about to stack more problems on his plate, particularly any backlash from the NRA. But I think there may be a way to package gun research that would meet the current agendas of both sides, and move beyond the name-calling and vitriol that erupts whenever gun issues are the subject of public debate.
For example, let’s look at the question of mental illness and guns. The NRA believes that we need to “fix” the mental health system in order to keep guns out of the wrong hands. They are never very specific about what such a fix would entail, as long as it doesn’t in any way impede the ability of “normal” folks to acquire or use guns. The gun control side will tell you that serious mental illness is not really linked to violent behavior, which means we don’t need to control the people, we need to control the guns.
Here is where some more research needs to be done that really shouldn’t upset either side. For example, more than 50% of all suicides in the United States are committed with guns, a percentage that climbs to 80% among suicide victims above the age of 65. Back in 1992, Arthur Kellerman led a team that did some research which appeared to indicate that people who lived in homes with firearms had a higher rate of suicide than people who residences were gun-free. But Kellerman only counted suicides that took place in the home, whereas people who committed suicide away from their homes also had an elevated suicide rate if they used a gun. Wouldn’t it be helpful to conduct a study of gun suicides outside the home to see when and where the gun was used? Wouldn’t such a study help us to better understand the degree to which the immediate impulse to commit suicide is helped or not by access to a gun?
Here’s another example. Garen Wintemute recently published some data which showed that in California, felons who pleaded down to a misdemeanor which still allowed them to purchase a gun had a much higher rate of gun violence subsequent to their conviction than people whose sentence kept them in a prohibited category and thus unable to legally acquire a gun. The NRA keeps talking about the fact that gun violence is only committed by bad guys with guns. But if someone were to extend Wintemute’s findings to a representative sample for the country as a whole, couldn’t such research then be used to revise the category of prohibited persons for gun ownership not to just include felons but to include persons convicted of certain misdemeanors as well?
I’m not a public health scholar, but it seems to me that just within the two examples cited above, there’s plenty of research to do. And it’s research that would in no way negatively impact the 2nd Amendment rights of anyone to own or acquire a gun. If the House Committee chaired by Congressman Kingston can tell the CDC what kind of research they can’t fund, there’s no reason why they can’t tell them what they should try to fund. Unless, of course, the real agenda is to keep evidence-based discussions outside the purview of guns, because just yelling back and forth is a guarantee that nothing will ever get done.