Andrew McAllister

Science Isn't Going to Deliver Perfect Gun Legislation

July 10, 2018 | 9 Minute Read


have trouble with perfectionism. Throughout school, I would rewrite homework to make it look neater. I publish so infrequently because I go through many edits and lots of research before I’m satisfied with an article. My Perfectionism gets in the way of progress. This is the same thing that’s holding Congress from doing anything about gun violence in the United States. And this might only get worse now that the CDC and NIH are allowed to do gun violence research again. But isn’t that confusing? Shouldn’t more research lead to a solution?

Wait We Couldn’t Research Gun Violence?

Back in 1996 as Congress was putting together its yearly spending bill1 , Representative Jay Dickey added an amendment to the funding for the Center for Disease Control:

none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.

Along with this rider, Congress specifically earmarked 2.6 million dollars for studying traumatic brain injuries — the exact amount that the CDC had used for research into gun violence the previous year. A similar rider was added to the National Institute of Health (NIH) in 2011.

This line is about gun control advocacy, not gun violence research. There is a difference between the two – one is about getting specific laws passed while one is about understanding what is happening2. Gun violence research could lead to gun control laws, but the CDC would (presumably) not take a specific position. However, the CDC felt that this was a clear signal to stop any efforts at understanding gun violence. Over a decade later, after the Newtown shooting in 2012, Barack Obama told these organizations to explicitly research gun violence 3. But it wasn’t until a few months ago that Alex Azar, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, clarified that the CDC could research gun violence as long as it did not take a formal position on gun control. On the one hand, this is great news and could lead to fewer gun violence in the country. On the other hand, this could just make the already complicated debate around guns worse.

Using Research to Avoid Making Decisions

Politicians are, in some ways, huge perfectionists. They don’t want to be wrong, and want scientists to provide a concrete answer to problems that they face. Unfortunately, scientists can’t always provide those kinds of answers. There is uncertainty in science, especially when we’re talking about people.

But hiding behind scientists is a good political move. Rather than say “I will not support any sort of gun control measures”, a politician can say “Science has shown that (put your favorite gun control measure here) doesn’t work”. Then it’s at least a little easier to swallow and you might still vote for them. And often, they aren’t wrong. Find an expert who says that background checks will help and you can find an expert who disagrees. Of course that disagreement is more than just “it doesn’t work and never will work” (because there is more room for nuance in scientific literature than in the news) but we aren’t 100% sure about what will stop gun violence.

The uncertainty in science comes from how complex and nuanced the problem of gun violence is. We most often hear about mass shootings, but homicides and suicides account for the majority of 30,000 people killed by guns every year. These are three disparate problems that overlap, but not completely. Expecting to find a “perfect” solution to the problem of gun control from science is ridiculous. If we want to take anything from science, it’s that we need to actually do some experimenting to see what will work and what won’t.

Well What Should We Do?

It’s not that there wasn’t any research on gun control from 1996 to 2013. There were still private sources of funding, plus the United States isn’t the only country on the planet. There are lots of places where gun violence research has taken place. While it isn’t perfect or absolute we can still act on it.

Background checks are one of the most widely touted form of gun control. But they are only effective if there is easy to access, high quality data for gun sellers. Mandatory waiting periods for guns is talked about less, but could be very effective. Project EXILE, which made consequences for having a gun more strict4, was thought to be a great way to reduce violence from guns, although recent evidence isn’t so clear. Many people cite the U.K. and Australia’s success at carpet bans of guns after mass shootings, but this overlooks the fact that those countries are islands and it’s much easier to prevent gun smugglers when your country is surrounded by water. There are also more esoteric options: engraving bullets as they are fired so that police can identify who owns the gun that fired them. Or smart guns that only fire for one person.

All of this is to say: we have things to try, from the loudest ’commonsense’ solutions to other solutions that don’t get talked about as often.

Owning Up to Values Rather than Science

With the CDC able to research gun violence again, politicians get the option of waiting for science to gift legislation to them. But again, science isn’t going to solve the complicated debates. It can’t solve that debate because that debate is based on values and not on science.

Do we value the freedom of being able to own a gun easily more than being able to go to school, a concert, or a movie, without being shot? Do we value ease of access to guns over the lives of veterans and white men who kill themselves (with guns) more than any other group? What about the young black men who are most likely to die because of someone else with a gun? How does all this compare to our freedom to go hunting? To defend ourselves and our families? To have a good time at the shooting range? I don’t have hard answers to these questions…and neither will science.

We don’t know exactly how to fix the problem. And any information we get from science won’t come quickly. Throwing money at the problem is good, and will help eventually. But we don’t want legislation in 30 years, we want to be able to save lives now. Come 2048, when gun violence researchers come and say “Here is the science that will back effective gun control legislation” (Something that won’t actually happen!), the same arguments and fears about guns will still be happening.

Let’s Learn Together

I’m going to be reading Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis to get a better handle on what the science says we can do now to help with gun violence. There’s an update for 2014 that I’m also planning on reading. Both of these books are free and you can find them here. If you are interested, I encourage you to check it out. Let’s talk about it. If enough people are interested we can do something like a book club. Otherwise, stay tuned for when I’m finished and write about it in a few months.

I’d Like to Learn More! (But not like, reading a whole book)

Check out some of these articles. If you see something you are interested in reading here, but can’t access the article without paying, send me a message and I will send it to you.

The Full List

If you are very interested, here is a link to my full gun violence bibliography . These are all the sources I’ve read while thinking about this problem (which started in a class). Remember, that if you see something you are interested in reading here, but can’t access the article without paying, send me a message and I will send it to you.

  1. Reading about the 1995-1996 government shutdown and debt ceiling limit reassures me that no matter how different things seem to be, they also don’t change all that much. 

  2. Of course, there is overlap. Science is not immune from social influences and part of the NRA’s lobbying effort was saying that scientists were biased in their studies on gun violence in the early 90’s. 

  3. This lead to just one call for proposals from the NIH. The funding for those awards ran out this year. 

  4. Project EXILE gave cases involving felons found with guns over to the federal government. Which meant longer sentences and serving time far away from your home and loved ones.