Better research, not more rhetoric, needed to counter gun violence

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In all our division and partisan rhetoric, there are few issues as intractable as gun violence.

Despite having 25 times the rate of gun violence in other developed nations, we can’t achieve any response more meaningful than caustic rhetoric from both sides.

The vast majority of gun owners are responsible citizens who value firearm ownership as a constitutionally guaranteed right, firmly grounded in our nation’s founding principles. The vast majority of people who favor strengthening gun regulation also support individual liberty, but want a better balance between the rights of individual gun ownership and the protection of others’ right to life and the collective interest of public safety.

Both are reasonable stances held by reasonable Americans. So, why can’t we ever reach any reasonable compromise?

There are many reasons, not least of which is the NRA’s disproportionate influence. But, perhaps the greatest reason is we lack good information to base public discourse and sound policy-making on, and that collective ignorance is self-inflicted.

Since the Dickey Amendment passed in 1996, our government has forbidden the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using any of its funding to advocate for gun control.

Dickey didn’t forbid studying the causes and effects of gun violence. It just forbade advocating gun control. But, passage of Dickey also coincided with a cut to CDC’s budget. The message was clear: Study gun violence, lose your funding.

Jay Dickey, the Republican congressman for whom the amendment was named, has since expressed regret over how it’s been interpreted.

“It wasn’t necessary that all research stop,” Dickey said in a March NPR piece. “It just couldn’t be the collection of data so that they can advocate gun control. That’s all we were talking about. But for some reason, it just stopped altogether.”

CDC research has remained stagnant, even under Democratic leadership. After the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama directed the CDC to re-evaluate gun violence research. A report was commissioned, but there was no follow-through.

This March, in the aftermath of the Las Vegas and Parkland, Fla., mass shootings, some Republicans supported gun violence research. But, they then cut the CDC budget by more than 21 percent, reiterating that old threat: Study gun violence, lose your funding.

At the same time, defense spending jumped 18 percent to $716 billion. I’m all for security, but that demands we identify the source of our greatest threat.

The numbers suggest our greatest threat isn’t in some future war to be fought in a foreign land. Since 9/11, the United States has suffered — as of Nov. 15 — 6,973 dead and 52,774 wounded in combat operations. Those are grave losses we can’t minimize and should honor for protecting our nation. But, we cannot ignore the fact that far more Americans die of combat-like wounds at home than on the battlefield.

Since Dickey passed, America has suffered more than 600,000 gunshot victims.

Mass shootings — defined as a shooting with three or more victims — have occurred 311 times so far in 2018, claiming 339 lives and injuring 1,249, according to Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.

In 2018, more than 12,500 Americans have died of gunshot wounds. That’s 83 percent more than all combat deaths since 2001 — and that’s not counting the 22,000 Americans who commit suicide with a gun each year. The number wounded by gunfire this year — 24,700 — is almost half the number of all American combat injuries in 17 years of war.

We’re spilling far more American blood at home than on the battlefield. Yet, we gut funding to the agency that should be studying the causes of our peculiar addiction to gun violence, while increasing overseas military funding.

But, we can quote bloody statistics all day without reaching any useful conclusions about cause and effect, or how we might form policy that can rest on something more substantive than partisan rhetoric.

To understand why we need better gun violence research, we need only consider the haunting Facebook post attributed to Ian Long on Nov. 7, shortly before he killed 12 victims and himself inside a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

“I hope people call me insane… (laughing emojis)… wouldn’t that just be a big ball of irony? Yeah… I’m insane, but the only thing you people do after these shootings is ‘hopes and prayers’.. or ‘keep you in my thoughts’… every time… and wonder why these keep happening…”

We can keep vilifying each other. We can gut funding to the CDC. We can refuse to face the reality of a home front that is bloodier than our battlefields. We can hide comfortably in our numb cycle of outrage and apathy.

And, if we stay that course, we’ll be left with little to do but continue to count our losses and “wonder why these keep happening.” But, as Ian Long pointed out, that would be insane.

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