Break the NRA's Ban on Gun-Violence Research

Just don't pull the research trigger.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The list of things the gun lobby opposes is long and varied. But its most-determined attacks target information itself.

For two decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been prohibited by Congress from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” (The National Institutes of Health faces a similar restriction.) Now there are signs the medical profession is getting fed up. In the April 7 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine is an editorial calling on physicians to demand the “resources and freedom” to do their jobs: reducing harm. Specifically, the journal calls for an end to the political blockade on research about the health effects of gun violence.

The gun lobby's anxiety is understandable. It makes many claims, but none is more consequential than the declaration that more guns lead to greater public safety. Life (and death) across the U.S. seems to undermine that assertion daily, while a smattering of research, conducted despite the blockade, reinforces doubts about the National Rifle Association's thesis.

Perhaps extensive research would authenticate the NRA's claims. On the other hand, there is a chance that a solid body of social-science research would reveal its thesis as a myth. Better not to take the risk.

Not all research has been extinguished. Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the University of California at Davis are among the institutions that have produced notable studies in recent years. The National Institute of Justice has made limited forays into studying the criminal use of guns. But given the scope of the issue -- more than 30,000 firearm deaths and tens of thousands of injuries annually -- foundation grants and a bare trickle of government research can do only so much to advance understanding.

In the wake of the 2012 mass murder at Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama pledged to take executive action to fund research about gun violence. Congress, which failed to pass even rudimentary background-check legislation after the killings, has refused to fund Obama's research agenda. And the CDC appears too cowed to move forward without congressional sanction.

The political stonewall won't crumble of its own accord. In February, the American Bar Association and the American Public Health Association declared gun violence a “public health crisis” requiring thorough research. They are large and influential groups. If they succeed in mobilizing their members, much good may follow.

“We, as health care professionals, are trusted, expected and paid to prevent harm to our patients and discover solutions to public health problems,” the Annals said in its editorial. “Have we done our jobs? Can we?” The gun lobby and Congress stand in the way. If physicians want to do their jobs -- including understanding gun violence and developing strategies for mitigating it -- they will have to take the fight to Washington.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.