Obama's order to resume gun research revives old debate

Public health officials are, once again, in the crossfire of an old debate on guns.

The latest issue stems from a Jan. 16 executive order. After a series of highly publicized mass-shootings, President Obama directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume research on gun violence.

"No commonsense definition of public health would lead you to the conclusion that it's the business of the federal government or, more specifically the CDC, to study gun violence," said Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman who currently serves as a board member on the National Rifle Association. "This is all about politics and gun control, not public health."

But the man who oversaw the CDC's gun violence research during the 1990s disagrees.

"It's very much a public health issue because there are injuries and deaths that come from the use of guns," said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who now serves as president of the Task Force for Global Health, a non-profit public health organization.

In 1996, while Rosenberg was director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the NRA successfully lobbied Congress for language in an appropriations bill stating that: "None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control."

According to Rosenberg, that language was "a shot across the bow" that all but ended federal funding of gun violence studies.

"Individual researchers were afraid. CDC leadership was afraid," Rosenberg said. "As a result, I think the country lost a lot of time figuring out how to get solutions."

Public health advocates insist the research is about preventing gun violence and injuries and not about interfering with the legal ownership and use of firearms.

"A gun without violence is an afternoon of hunting with Dad or target shooting at the range," said Dr. Arthur Kellermann, who founded Emory University's Department of Emergency Medicine before joining the RAND Corporation, a non-profit public policy think tank.

According to Kellermann, restricting gun violence research makes no more sense than telling public health officials to ignore statistics on car crash injuries.

"We have substantially decreased the public health consequences of such things as tobacco and smoking, but we've not outlawed cigarettes, cars or matches," Kellermann said. "There's no reason to say we can't make a big impact on gun violence and leave the legal and responsible ownership of guns alone."

Barr said he's not opposed to privately-funded research on gun violence but said he's skeptical when the federal government gets involved.

"The government certainly has an agenda when it comes to guns," Barr said. "It's the same agenda that the government has in any issue and it's about control."

Because guns remain a polarizing issue and federal funds are already tight, Kellermann said he fears the CDC could find itself caught in a fight between some members of Congress and the White House over how to finance the president's executive order for gun research.

"If the funding that goes to the most important public health agency in the United States gets caught in a political fight, this could not only be damaging to restarting any level of gun research, it could damage public health research more broadly," Kellermann said. "That would be a tragedy if that happened in this modern era. Things are too important. There's too much at stake."