Published June 26, 2013
In the near future, Americans who own or want guns likely will be subject to rafts of new questions from social scientists, medical researchers and law enforcement officials intent to discover just what guns they own, why they own them and what they intend to use them for — not to mention where and how they keep them.
They will also likely have more researchers poring over such issues as whether childhood education programs against gun violence actually work; whether there actually is any relationship between violence in the media and in real life; and whether the safety plans that were drawn up by schools, colleges and communities in the wake of highly publicized mass shootings actually are effective.
Those and many other gun-related questions are the thrust of a new social science research agenda that the Obama administration hopes will keep the push for gun control alive for years to come.
The research agenda is intended to produce mammoth amounts of raw data on American gun owners, users and their circumstances, meaning that violence resulting from firearms use will be studied for “its causes, approaches to interventions that could prevent it, and strategies to minimize its health burden.”
This includes, for example, such things as “the potential health risks and benefits (e.g., suicide rates, personal protection) of having a firearm in the home under a variety of circumstances (including storage practices) and settings.”
The agenda, which aims to sidestep Second Amendment political and constitutional issues of gun ownership through its public health focus, was released earlier this month in a 124-page report titled, “Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearms Related Violence.” It was sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with financial support from private foundations.
The major impetus came from the White House, which mandated the study as one among 23 executive actions President Obama ordered last January, just weeks after the December 14, 2012, massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six teachers and staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., by disturbed killer Adam Lanza, who subsequently committed suicide.
The horror of the crime, and the mental state of Lanza, contributed to the perspective on the sweeping design of the study, as well as its urgency. According to the chairperson of the group, Alan Leshner, its goal is to encourage “productive, useful answers” to some of the most divisive questions in American politics within the next three to five years -- more or less within the next major political cycle.
Moreover, it is intended to be value-neutral: “We are fact people,” said Leshner, a psychologist who is CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “I’m a basic scientist,” he added. “I was asked to chair because I’m neutral.”
So far, the study has drawn plaudits from liberal sponsoring foundations, and a cautious level of support from the National Rifle Association, which took part, according to NRA Director of Research and Information John Frazer, “because some of the research that is already out there is due for an update.”
Among other things, the NRA argued, the steep drop in American violent crime —about a 46 percent decline between 1994 and 2011— deserves study in the context of the spread of “right-to carry” laws permitting citizens to bear firearms in public.
The NRA would also like to see more research work on the deterrent effect of firearms on crime, and the benefits of firearm ownership, including “socialization into lawful gun use.”
Other groups argued for more monitoring of international efforts to reduce gun violence, the study of best “state and international policy approaches to gun safety technology,” and the extent to which childhood education programs actually reduce firearm violence among children at an early age or later in life.
The research study has also drawn skeptics, who wonder whether the amount of data that the CDC study suggests collecting might not amount to a gun registry—opposed by many on Second Amendment grounds -- by backdoor means. That is something Leshner emphatically denies.
Others have a skeptical attitude. “There is nothing in there directly about a gun registry, but there is obviously plenty that could be used toward that end if one wanted to,” says Ted Bromund, an arms trade expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “I don’t see how one can regret the lack of a single database on gun owners, as the study does, without seeing the possibility of making the case that we need a national gun registry.”
Bromund also pointed to references in the study document to “gender-based violence” as indications that research might intersect with the terms of the controversial U.N.-sponsored international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which opened for signature on June 7, and which the Obama administration has declared it will sign, though congressional ratification is far less likely.
The research area of optimal conditions for firearms storage and safety, Bromund points out, also “could tie in fairly easily to the ATT.”
Given the spectrum of concerns that it covers, the report represents something of a rocket-propelled event for American social science. It was mostly hammered out in a few days of closed-door sessions last April by a select group of 14 academics and public health experts, assisted by eight staffers from the National Research Council and Institutes of Medicine.
The secret sessions were preceded by a single “town hall” day for public input, which Leshner says was “successful in getting the views of as diverse a group as one would want.”
The hammering out of the priority document was followed by a “couple of weeks of back-and-forth,” in Leshner’s phrase, among the committee members and staffers. Most research outlines of similar ambition can take months or even years of committee study before they appear.
The crash schedule and high-speed publication was intended to break through what Leshner described to Fox News as a 17-year congressional ban on such CDC research, but it was also clearly intended to promote near-term action by “people who want answers in a systematic, rapid way.”
Much will depend on whether the money flows to make sure that the high-priority research actually gets under way. In hailing the study, the CDC told Fox News that it “does not currently have dedicated funding to conduct this research.” For its part, the Obama administration has called for Congress to approve $10 million to get the research ball rolling. Whether that will happen is open to question.
That may leave private foundations -- a number of which have prominently supported gun control research efforts in the past -- to carry the burden -- which in turn may affect which priorities get satisfied first.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell