Catalyst Spring 2013

What Does Gun Violence Have to Do with Science?

by Michael Halpern

In the wake of several high-profile mass killings, the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in the United States took center stage this past winter. But what initially received scant attention in the growing public discussion was the fact that Congress has discouraged scientific research on gun violence that could lead to effective solutions.

In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences identified several significant gaps in policy-relevant gun violence research. But incredibly, this research has been effectively shut down for political purposes. For years, government scientists employed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—and even scientists who receive funding from government entities like the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—have raised concerns about the effect that legislation passed by Congress has on their ability to conduct gun violence studies.

Even if such studies were embraced by Congress, good, usable data would be hard to come by: employees of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, for example, are not allowed to enter gun ownership information into computers—information that would help them more quickly trace the source of weapons used in crimes, and enable researchers to see trends.

The good news is that a thaw may be coming. In January, President Obama directed the CDC to conduct this crucially needed research. As the president was considering what to do, UCS helped inject the problem into the public conversation through an op-ed for and a number of interviews with news outlets including National Public Radio and the Associated Press. We suggested that to make meaningful progress in preventing gun-related deaths and injuries, the United States must pursue high-quality scientific research on issues such as violence prevention and mental health, while creating opportunities for more public discussions that consider this research.

Every Debate Requires Facts

Robust research establishes a foundation for reasoned discussion and enables us to make the best decisions for society as a whole. In the process, the partnerships that form among scientists, policy makers, and the public help us deal with critical challenges effectively, even after events like the recent mass shootings fall out of the headlines.

These are the kinds of discussions the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS is fostering on issues that affect our lives. We are working to build better connections between scientists and citizens so that the best available scientific information is shared and not easily ignored when making decisions. We are also seeking to create an environment in which decision makers and other opinion leaders are comfortable making politically controversial decisions because the evidence points them in that direction.

The more poorly analyzed an issue, the more polarized opinions about it become, and the more intractable the problem becomes. In the absence of reliable information on which we can all agree, we guess. We interpret the facts to suit our beliefs and continue talking past each other. While the Center for Science and Democracy does not work extensively on the issue of gun violence, we will weigh in on this and any issue whenever politicians or special interests seek to suppress science that can improve the health and safety of all Americans.

Michael Halpern is program manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS.


Learn more about gun violence research.