by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

A couple of years ago, after another of the mass shootings that plague the United States more than any other nation, I posted on this blog a four-part series examining the gun issue from as many sides as I could find. You may begin reading (or re-reading) it here.

In the two years since I published that analysis, not much has changed.  There are still periodic mass shootings (two significant ones within recent weeks), and there is still no national effort to do anything about it. After a couple of weeks of mourning, things go back to the way they were, except that the gun lobby uses the tragedy to gin up fear of incipient “gun control.”  Thus in the succeeding months States pass numerous gun laws, nearly all of which loosen restrictions and make it easier to obtain, carry, and use firearms.

Although mass shootings such as Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs capture public attention for a week or two, they generate no action beyond the ubiquitous calls for “thoughts and prayers.” If over two dozen people can be shot to death and twenty more injured while at a church service, it would seem that prayers are not enough. Moreover, while this sort of event stands out as terrifying, far more deaths and injuries result from everyday incidences of gun violence that take one or two lives at a time.

I think most people would agree that gun violence is a problem. Many would say that it is a problem that cannot be solved. Some years back, I learned that very often what appears to be an insoluble problem is in fact a hard decision. Making that one decision can lead to, if not a resolution, then at least a significant improvement in settling the issues that have caused the apparent insoluble problem.

In this case, the decision is whether we are going to address the issue of firearms head on, or we are not. Are we going to keep pussyfooting around over side issues such as mental health, the potential need for a well-armed popular uprising to overthrow a government gone wild, and the threat of mass confiscation and banning of all privately-owned guns? Or are we going to tackle the hard decision about what to do about the 300 million or so essentially unregulated personal firearms floating around the United States?

What will happen if we do?  One thing I can say with certainty is that it will not end with the government sending out blue-helmeted soldiers in black helicopters to take away all of everybody’s guns. It should take no more than a moment’s thought to realize that such a thing is not just politically impossible, it is also logistically impossible. There are not enough soldiers in the armed forces to invade and search every house, dig up every yard, and search every desolate forest, even if the political will were there, which it isn’t and never will be.

The first step to deciding what to do about gun violence is to disabuse everyone of the notion that gun confiscation or prohibition is the end result of any step taken in the direction of gun control. If we can get over that admittedly gigantic hurdle, we might begin to get somewhere.  The gun lobby (funded largely by the makers of firearms and ammunition) has a knee-jerk reaction to any suggestion that the gun issue even be studied, let alone that any action be taken, and that reaction is to immediately go on a Gish gallop about banning or confiscating guns.

There is no one in any position of political authority who proposes confiscating and/or banning guns, but it is the default position of most gun-rights defenders. One often encounters an argument that goes like this: “People get killed in car accidents all the time, and sometimes people use cars to commit mass murder. But we don’t ban cars. So we should not ban guns because some people misuse them.”

The car analogy is actually a pretty good one, if looked at in the right way. Yes, people get killed by cars, and they always will. Nobody is suggesting that cars be banned, and it would be politically and logistically impossible to do so. However, measures both voluntary and mandated have dramatically reduced auto-related deaths. In 1969, the USA saw 26.4 auto-related deaths per 100,000 people. By 2007 it was half that, and in 2016 it was 11.6 per 100,000 people.

There was not a significant drop in the number of cars per person, nor in the number of miles driven per year during that time period.  What changed to make the driving experience less deadly? The answer is that studies were conducted and analyzed, and decisions were made to make drivers, cars, and roadways safer. For example, when I was young, the blood-alcohol level necessary to classify a driver as intoxicated was 0.15 – one had to be just about falling-down drunk to be considered unfit to drive.  That level has been reduced to 0.8, and drunken-driving deaths have precipitously declined.

Young drivers now receive additional training, old drivers may be required to demonstrate their continued fitness, and laws have been enacted making it easier to lift a repeat offender’s license.  Seat-belt laws have saved countless lives, and recent text-and-driving bans have reduced distracted driving.  Cars have been made much safer by equipping them with seat belts, air bags, laminated windshield glass, collapsing steering columns, crash-resistant roof construction, head restraints, and padded dashboards.  The newest cars have available automatic braking and lane-departure warning systems. Exceedingly powerful, but unsafe, cars are not permitted on public highways.

Highways are wider, with better lighting and fewer dangerous curves and intersections. They are surrounded by fences and equipped with breakaway signposts, more and safer guardrails, and crumple zone constructions at overpass supports and bridge abutments.

We can certainly make gun users safer. Training in gun safety could be a part of the firearms purchase process. Persons who have a history of violence and violation of gun laws (much more reliable predictors for the potential perpetration of gun violence than, say, having received mental health treatment) could be identified and put on a restricted list. We might also broaden the security provided by background checks.

Guns themselves can be made safer. The size of magazines could be limited, “bump stocks” could be restricted, and ammunition could be made less lethal. There are already versions of a “smart gun” that cannot be fired unless it is held by, or is in close proximity to, its owner – a sure way to reduce accidental shootings by small children and attacks on police officers if a criminal manages to get the officer’s weapon.  There are dangers, though. For example, “smart guns” have been shown to be potentially vulnerable to hacking.

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There are two main reasons why this doesn’t happen.  One is that political office-holders are too terrified to even consider any measures to reduce gun deaths. There is tremendous power – primarily the power of money – behind the gun-rights lobby. The firearms and ammunition manufacturers provide millions of dollars to the National Rifle Association in the form of direct donations as well as advertising in NRA publications and sponsorship of programs on the organization’s video-stream channel, NRATV. With deep pockets and a ready supply of single-issue voters, the gun-rights lobby can target, and often destroy, legislators who dare to propose limits on the manufacture, acquisition, and use of firearms. In 2013, the Colorado State Senate president and another senator became the first two legislators in that State’s history to be removed from office in recall elections. The reason for their recall was their support of a bill to expand gun-purchase background checks to include sales at gun shows. Even gun merchants have become targets. Such “smart guns” as described above are hard to find because gun dealers who have offered them for sale have been intimidated, boycotted, and threatened.  Apparently gun-rights absolutists fear such technology might become mandatory, and that would be “gun control.”

The other stumbling block to examining the causes and potential remedies for excessive gun violence is the Dickey Amendment. Named for its author, former U.S. Congressman Jay Dickey of Arkansas, the amendment (added to a 1996 appropriations bill) prohibits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using injury-prevention funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” At the same time, the bill removed $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget – the exact amount used the previous year to study the effects of gun-related injuries – and redirected it to the study of traumatic brain injuries.  As a result, the CDC stopped funding gun-related research for fear of having its appropriations cut. By 2013, such funding had declined 96 percent, to just $100,000.

Even though Dickey himself now opposes his own amendment, and has spoken out for its repeal, there has been no serious move to rescind it. Indeed, the CDC ban was extended in 2012 to include the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And it is not as if NIH were heavily researching the gun issue. The University of Chicago Crime Lab found that between 1973 and 2012, the United States experienced 2,068 total cases of cholera, diphtheria, polio and rabies. NIH awarded funding to 486 projects studying those diseases.  During the same period, the nation experienced over four million injuries from firearms, and the total number of NIH funding awards on that subject was three. My guess is that the number of requests for gun-study grants was very low, too. After all, with all the aspects of public health that can be studied, why would anyone want to pursue a subject that would be less likely to be funded and, if funded, subject the researchers to being vilified and threatened?

[Update: While some would have you believe that the budget bill signed by President Trump in March 2018 fixes the Dickey Amendment, it does not. It merely adds some meaningless “clarifying language” that does nothing to eliminate the pernicious intrusion of politics into science. Here’s what it says.

“While appropriations language prohibits the CDC and other agencies from using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control, the Secretary of Health and
Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.”]

This is unacceptable. I have blogged previously on the damage that can be done when political forces interfere with science and dictate what it may and may not investigate. This issue demands investigation, as would any public health matter that causes so many deaths and injuries and is a part of so many homicides, suicides, and accidents. It’s time to press for the CDC and NIH to be allowed to do their job, which is to improve public health and reduce injury and disease. It is imperative that the majority of Americans take at least one-tenth as much interest in the gun controversy as do the minority for whom it is not just the most important issue, but the only issue.