Ever wonder why we study highway collisions, smoking and HIV/AIDS for the purpose of reducing risk but don’t do the same for gun-related fatalities? It’s because the National Rifle Association purposefully works to suppress such research. The NRA will likely lobby against the $10 million proposed by President Barack Obama in his 2014 budget to study gun violence prevention.
The NRA’s battle against research began when the New England Journal of Medicine published a study in 1993 about guns in the home increasing the risk of homicide by a family member or acquaintance. The lead researcher was Arthur Kellermann, MD, who was with the Center for Disease Control.
Seeing the study as an attack on gun rights, the NRA pushed to eliminate federal funding for gun studies. Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark, spearheaded legislation in 1996, known as the “Dickey Amendment,” that prohibits the CDC from using its funding “to advocate or promote gun control.” While not explicitly prohibiting research on gun violence, the legislation effectively stopped it. “Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear,” Kellermann said, “but no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out.”
After the National Institute for Health published a 2009 study investigating the link behind gun possession and gun assault, Congress extended the equivalent of the Dickey amendment to the NIH.
The NRA sees gun research as “junk science designed to paint legal gun ownership as a public health hazard,” but let’s look at the facts. The Children’s Defense Fund reported that in 2008 and 2009, 5740 children and teens, including 299 children under age 10, were killed by guns, and 8162 children and teens, including 847 children under age 10, were injured by guns. In 2008 and 2009, gun homicide was the leading cause of death for blacks, ages 15 to 19; for white teens, ages 15 to 19, it was vehicular accidents followed by gun homicide in 2008, and gun suicide in 2009.
Dickey later had an epiphany, admitting he “served as the NRA’s point person in Congress.” In July 2012, he co-authored with Kellermann an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, where they questioned “why we know more and spend so much more on preventing traffic fatalities than on preventing gun violence, even though firearm deaths (31,347 in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available) approximate the number of motor vehicle deaths (32,885 in 2010).”
Dickey and Kellermann maintain that, without research, scientists cannot answer basic questions about how best to prevent gun deaths. “The same evidence-based approach that is savings millions of lives from motor-vehicle crashes as well as from smoking, cancer and HIV/AIDS, can help reduce the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence.”
“For a child, curiosity can be lethal, and guns spark curiosity,” states Robert Murray, MD, a pediatrician and professor at The Ohio State University. “Pediatricians are trained to evaluate environmental risks for children and seek ways to minimize them. Guns are a public health issue for children, no different than chemicals or electrical outlets.” Murray thinks that clinical research is needed so that pediatricians can better understand gun-related injuries and develop sensible measures to insulate children from the harm of mishandled firearms.
In 2011, Florida passed a law prohibiting pediatricians from asking questions or making any written record about firearms in the house. Violating the statute jeopardizes a pediatrician’s license. The Miami Herald reported that the bill was written by the NRA. The statute was a response to a mother complaining that her doctor told her she would need to find another doctor after she refused to answer questions about guns in her home.
The statute permits questions about guns only when a physician believes “in good faith,” that the information is relevant to a patient’s safety, but as Bernd Wollschlaeger, MD, points out, “You can only determine the relevance of the question once you have the answer.” Angela Sauaia, MD, who completed a study of children treated for gun injuries at two trauma centers, stated, “We didn’t expect to see this many childhood injuries due to everyday gun violence … far too many of these were self-inflicted.”
Wollschlaeger and practically every medical association in Florida challenged the statute in federal court. Last November, the court struck down the statute for violating the First Amendment right to free speech: “This law chills practitioners’ speech in a way that impairs the provision of medical care and may ultimately harm the patient.” Gov. Rick Scott’s administration has filed an appeal.
Why would politicians think it good policy to suppress meaningful information about gun violence? The answer comes from Dickey and Kellermann: “Most politicians fear talking about guns almost as much as they would being confronted by one.”
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