Last night’s Democratic Presidential debate had to register joyous excitement within the ranks of Gun-control Nation because the candidates spent 15 minutes trotting out their various ideas about how to reduce violence caused by guns. Remember when gun control was verboten as a campaign issue on the Democratic side? Ain’t true no more, that’s for sure.
Booker rolled out his plan for national gun licensing, Warren admitted to voting for an assault-rifle ban, Castro said he had no problem with some gun buybacks, on and on. Where they all come down on the same side, however, is restoring CDC gun-research funding, an item that has been stripped from the CDC budget every year since 1997, but which this year has been stuck back into the House version of the budget to the tune of $50 mil.
Before I say what I am about to say, let me make it perfectly clear that I have no problem with research being done on any health issue, particularly an issue which results in more than 125,000 fatal and non-fatal injuries every year. But let me also make it clear that while my Ph.D. research was on economic history, not gun violence, I know a little bit about the requirements for conducting academic research, and certain requirements remain true whether the research covers gun violence or the 16th-century origins of capitalism, which happened to be my field.
Those requirements include the following: (1). The data used for the research must be valid and must be directly relevant to the topic at hand; (2). The problem being solved must be defined by its importance to the specific field of inquiry, not by whether data exists which can be properly used. Unfortunately, much of the research which comes out of the public health research community on gun violence doesn’t meet either of those requirements, and this is not because there hasn’t been enough research money to go around.
Public health gun researchers love to talk about their work as a contribution to the ‘epidemiology’ of gun violence, you can find this nomenclature in the work of leading gun-violence scholars here. Now I always thought that the term ‘epidemiology’ means that one identifies a threat to health, figures out how it spreads from host to host, and then figures out how to immunize or protect the not-yet-infected population from contracting the disease. But in the case of gun violence, the disease doesn’t spread from victim to victim, the disease is caused because someone picks up a gun and shoots themselves or someone else. And we can’t study this population because either they are not about to admit what they have done, or in the case of suicide, they happen to be dead. That’s a big problem with guns. The rate of fatal injury is much higher than what happens if you fall off your bike.
Virtually all the gun-violence research published since the CDC ban took effect is based either on CDC injury data which covers the victims of gun violence who do not play a primary role in the spread of this disease, or is based on telephone surveys which, by definition, exclude participation by the shooters themselves. Does it really matter that most gun owners support background checks for secondary gun transfers when these same gun owners have little, if any direct responsibility for the violence caused by guns? Our friend Philip Cook interviewed an incarcerated population about how and why they carried guns, but he wasn’t about to ask them to explain the circumstances in which they actually used a gun.
I hope CDC gun research starts up again so that my friends in the gun research community receive the financial resources they deserve. If they do, then they need to figure out how and why less than five percent of the people who commit violent assaults each year use a gun. And that’s not going to change no matter how many laws we pass to regulate the behavior of law-abiding folks who own guns.