Amid the ritual offering of thoughts and prayers for the latest victims of gun violence, here’s something members of Congress can do that will not limit the distribution of guns nor infringe on perceived freedoms contained within the Second Amendment.
They can, and should without delay, lift the 20-year-old ban on federal research on gun violence.
Tens of thousands of Americans are killed or injured by guns every year, but mass shootings have become a notoriously American problem. The latest attack claimed the lives of 17 people at a Florida high school on Wednesday, including a heroic assistant coach/security guard who died trying to protect students.
Gun violence is the least-researched leading cause of death in the U.S. It has been since 1996, when the gun lobby got Congress to pass the Dickey amendment, which prevented federal funds from being used to “advance or promote gun control.” It snuffed out ongoing research at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eliminating millions in funding grants.
Since then, the debate over how to curb gun violence has raged on, with every potential solution criticized for lack of proof that it would work. This is the cynical way to block public policy. First, make it impossible to gather the needed facts, then attack solutions you dislike for lack of facts. Meanwhile, people are dying. Children are dying. In movie theaters and nightclubs, at music concerts and schools. That is unconscionable. Every member of Congress standing for re-election should act to lift that ban or explain their reasons to the public.
House Speaker Paul Ryan relied on the dearth of research again on Thursday in cautioning against a rush to action. “This is not the time to jump to some conclusion, not knowing the full facts,” he said. “We have a system to prevent people who aren’t supposed to get guns from getting guns. And if there are gaps there, then we need to look at those gaps.”
“If”? There is no “if.” The gaps exist. They were widened last year, when President Donald Trump signed the rollback of a modest Obama-era rule to limit the ability of certain people with mental illness to purchase firearms.
Cars are far safer than they once were because automotive deaths and risks were studied deeply, leading to safety improvements. Alan Leshner, former head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told CNN that gun violence is “one of the few public health problems facing the country about which we have basically no scientific base of information to guide us how to deal with it.” The reluctance to do such research, he said, “makes no sense.” One optimistic note: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Congress Thursday that he will allow his department to conduct research into gun violence, despite the ban. We hope he is allowed to do so.
After the 2016 election, representatives from dozens of top public health schools across the country met with public health and advocacy organizations to talk about what they could do to change the conversation on guns. Their proposal to strengthen research, build public health networks, foster collaboration among oppositional groups and nurture state initiatives is a good one. Most important, they said, “there is a need to convene an inclusive group of firearm owners, firearm manufacturers, police, pro-firearm advocates, safety advocates, academics and others to develop a common ground around the public health impact of firearms and the need for broad-based action to mitigate the consequences of civilian firearm ownership.”
We could not agree more. Resurrecting the same arguments, hurling the same cherry-picked stats at one another, is not working.
The Editorial Board urges Minnesota’s universities and private foundations and donors to begin research right here, to work with anti-gun advocacy groups and, yes, gun rights groups and hunters and firearm owners. Seek facts, discuss the results, find common ground. We will be looking for those willing to come together and help Minnesota lead the way on initiatives that strike a balance between freedom and safety, that break the numbing cycle of shootings, prayers, debate and inaction.
The alternative is too awful to contemplate: That this nation will stand by and allow its citizens to be regularly slaughtered in mass shootings because it is unwilling to do anything else.