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U.S. needs ‘robust research’ on gun violence

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:


Yet another senseless killing spree shocked America this week, as word spread of Monday’s tragedy at Oikos University in Oakland, Calif.

The pattern is all too familiar: A shooter possessed by pent-up anger or resentment apparently sets out to kill — not necessarily the people who caused his misery, but anyone connected to a place or institution with which it was associated. All of these deaths are tragic, but there is something especially poignant when the setting is a school: Young lives are lost, and many more are forever changed.

Guns are the weapons of choice for these crimes. Mass stabbings do not occur. So today the verbal crossfire is between those who believe access to guns should be limited and those who, on the Tea Party extreme, believe that everyone should be armed. Then people could protect themselves against attackers like the ones at Oikos, at Columbine High School in 1999 and at 101 California St. in San Francisco six years before that. Would-be mass murders might even think twice if they knew people would shoot back.

We are among those who believe the more people have guns, the more people will get shot. When we went looking for the latest objective studies or research on the topic Tuesday, we were surprised at the results. There hasn’t been any new, major, publicly funded research advancing the gun debate in nearly a decade.

The last comprehensive public report was in 2004 by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. It concluded that available data on firearms and violent crime “are too weak to support strong conclusions about the effects of various measures to prevent and control gun violence.” The authors called for a “robust research program in the area.”

We’re still waiting.

Scientists accuse the National Rifle Association of blocking research. The NRA says it only wants to stop politically slanted research, objecting to several studies on gun control laws by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the 1990s. In 1996, Arkansas Republican Rep. Jay Dickey stripped all funding for firearms research from the center’s budget. Funds later were granted for “injury prevention and control,” but the law still bans any use of public money to “advocate or promote gun control.”

The Catch-22 is obvious. If objective research indicates that fewer guns in a community correlate with less violence, it would be portrayed as advocating gun control.

Yet the outcome of objective study is not foregone, particularly if overall safety and crime levels are part of the equation. For instance, in the United Kingdom, guns are not prevalent and gun deaths are rare — but violent crimes in general are more common than here. If gun advocates believe that encouraging people to own and carry guns will make America safer, why not compile some facts?

The federal government should never authorize studies aimed at a predetermined conclusion. But there are objective ways to analyze guns and safety in this country, such as comparing crime and violence in areas with high and low levels of gun ownership.

Surely promoting public safety is a goal shared by the NRA and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Instead of trading anecdotal arguments, let’s listen to the National Academy of Sciences and figure out how to gather objective evidence.

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