In the wake of the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., the familiar questions inevitably resurfaced: Are communities where more people carry guns safer or less safe? Does the availability of high-capacity magazines increase deaths? Do more rigorous background checks make a difference?
The reality is that even these and other basic questions cannot be fully answered, because not enough research has been done. And there is a reason for that: Scientists in the field and former officials with the government agency that used to finance the great bulk of this research agree in saying that the influence of the National Rifle Association has all but choked off money for such work.
“We’ve been stopped from answering the basic questions,” said Mark Rosenberg, former director of the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was for about a decade the leading source of financing for firearms research.
Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, said his group had not tried to squelch genuine scientific inquiries, just politically slanted ones.
“Our concern is not with legitimate medical science,” Cox said. “Our concern is they were promoting the idea that gun ownership was a disease that needed to be eradicated.”
The amount of money available today for studying the impact of firearms is a fraction of what it was in the mid-1990s, and the number of scientists toiling in the field has dwindled to a handful as a result, according to researchers.
The dearth of money can be traced in large measure to a clash between public health scientists and the NRA in the mid-1990s. At the time, Rosenberg and others at the CDC were becoming increasingly assertive about the importance of studying gun-related injuries and deaths as a public health phenomenon, financing studies that found, for example, having a gun in the house, rather than conferring protection, significantly increased the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.
Alarmed, the NRA and its allies on Capitol Hill fought back. The injury center was guilty of “putting out papers that were really political opinion masquerading as medical science,” said Cox, who also worked on this issue for the NRA more than a decade ago.
In 1996, Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., stripped $2.6 million from the disease control centers’ budget.