Wonder why the NRA can say there is no evidence that gun control works? Because they’ve censored research on the subject.
In the aftermath of Newtown, we’ve learned that the NRA successfully lobbied Congress to suppress research on how to limit gun violence. Since 1996, according to one estimate, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has slashed firearms safety research by 96 percent. There was actual language in the CDC’s budget that said none of its funds could be used to “advocate or promote gun control,” and similar restrictions were imposed on research supported by other federal health agencies. The NRA deemed research on the relationship between teens, alcohol consumption and gun use, as well as the impact of gun storage practices, as “junk science studies.”
What got the NRA so agitated? A 1993 study by Arthur Kellermann et al. published in The New England Journal of Medicine that debunked the myth that having a gun in your home made you safer. The study showed that having a gun in your home increased the risk of one family member shooting another by almost threefold, compared to homes without a gun. The risk of suicide was nearly five times greater.
Having a gun in your home, in other words, “doesn’t convey protection.” It actually puts you and your family at greater risk. Indeed, from 1985 until 1996, the CDC funded a variety of studies all leading to the conclusion that stricter gun control was a public health priority. This was not good news for the NRA, so they succeeded in making sure such studies rarely saw the light of day. According to The Huffington Post, the NRA has spent over $28 million on lobbying since 1998, becoming one of the most feared and influential lobbies.
Recent research, however, offers more bad news. A 2012 study shows that the homicide rate increased 7 to 9 percent in each of the two dozen states that adopted “stand your ground” laws—which legalize deadly force against someone if you feel threatened—between 2000 and 2010. And, according to Mark Hoekstra, one of the study’s authors, “we find no evidence of any deterrence effect over that same time period.”
Think if the auto industry had succeeded in suppressing research on auto safety. Here’s what we wouldn’t have: seat belts, child restraints, frontal air bags and motorcycle helmets. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 366,000 lives were saved through such initiatives between 1975 and 2009.
In 2009, there were 31,200 firearm deaths in the United States. Guns cause eight times more deaths here than in our economic counterparts in Europe and Asia. These are preventable deaths. And we need solid scientific research to show what measures work. But this is exactly what the forces on the Right want to suppress or denounce as “junk,” similar to research about global warming, the relationship between fast foods and obesity or the health hazards of prescription drugs (“ask your doctor about…”).
Remember when no one wanted to take on Big Tobacco? Remember the revelations about how Philip Morris and other companies suppressed their own research about the addictive properties of cigarettes and the risks of lung cancer and then lied about it to Congress? Remember when smoking was everywhere? And how now it’s virtually nowhere? In 1954, 45 percent of Americans said they smoked. In 2011? Only 19 percent.
President Obama has directed the CDC and other federal agencies to conduct or sponsor research on the causes of gun violence. Of course there will be a massive fight over gun control. And expect to see new “research,” funded by innocuous-sounding groups themselves funded by the NRA, showing that gun control has zero effect on gun violence. After all, as Bloomberg recently reported, studies claiming to show no negative consequences of fracking—the process of fracturing shale to release the natural gas it contains—have been often funded by the natural gas industry itself.
But let’s keep Big Tobacco in mind. From the 1950s through the 1970s, they were a hugely powerful lobby, ruthless and widely feared. Then one day the public noticed the emperor had no clothes. It will take time, but that is exactly what can happen when we expose the naked lies of the NRA and the weapons traffickers who fund them.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.