Janaury 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 1

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From the Executive Officer

Gun Violence: Lifting the Shackles on Federal Firearms Research

All of us as vital as the one light we move through, the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day: ...the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever.”

from the poem One Today by Richard Blanco,
read at the Second Inauguration of Barack Obama

sally hillsman

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

Sadness engulfed ASA headquarters on December 14, 2012, as it did in homes and workplaces across the country, as news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting spread. It was another shooting, another senseless loss of futures that will never be attained. This mass shooting, following the recent shootings in Oregon, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Minnesota as well as those at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Tucson, targeted very young children. It appears to have shaken the American public sufficiently to push some elected officials to challenge the American gun lobby and address gun violence in America. Research on firearms can help.

President Obama charged Vice President Biden to investigate and give recommendations for actions to curb gun violence. Then, on January 16, 2013, the president announced a series of legislative recommendations and executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence. The legislative recommendations will need congressional action—which may or may not happen—but the executive actions should take effect immediately (as long as some members of Congress do not successfully throw up roadblocks). To hear Obama’s speech and learn more, see www.whitehouse.gov/issues/preventing-gun-violence.

One of the executive actions is designed to remove the “shackles” that have limited federally funded research on the causes of gun violence. In the mid-1990s, Congress prohibited scientific agencies from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control.”  President Obama’s plan, “Now Is the Time,” states that research on gun violence is not advocacy; it is research vital to the well-being of our nation. In particular, President Obama focused on the following two gun violence research points. From the White House Fact Sheet:

Unshackling the Research? Maybe

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Since 1996, federal agencies basically have been barred from supporting research on gun violence apart from some that focuses on the criminal use of illegal firearms. That year, pro-gun members of Congress removed funding for gun research at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC. In addition, language was inserted in the 1996 spending bill that stated “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” (Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill. HR 3610, PL 104-208). Because of these actions, federal support for research and data collection on gun violence from a public health perspective basically ended. It has been almost 17 years since we had new information available from the CDC on violence related to firearms. Gun industry lobbyists have also encouraged political attacks on gun violence research funded by the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1487470#qundefined. The White House believes that research on the causes of gun violence does not violate the ban. Not all members of Congress agree.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has a long and impressive history of firearms research. Those familiar with this program will join me in lauding the work of Lois Felson Mock who ran this effort in the social science division of NIJ. She guided many years of thoughtful, productive, and very careful work that included a congressionally mandated evaluation of the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. As impressive as it was, the NIJ firearms research program focused on illegal guns and criminal contexts. Given the political environment, the research had to skillfully avoid, step around, and, ultimately, bypass most research on legal guns and their consequences for public health and well-being and any relationship they might have to criminal violence.

Congress is now responding to the President’s legislative requests and examining his executive actions. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) recently introduced legislation (H.R. 321) that would change PL 104-208 and allow gun violence research. The resolution has garnered 31 co-sponsors in the House, and it is a good first step. However, to date, the bill has no Republican co-sponsors; this makes its passage unlikely. Additional bills have been introduced in the Senate and House that would curb the sale of assault weapons, limit the size of ammunition clips, and expand background checks. These bills, like H.R. 321, face many hurdles that they may not surmount. The President’s executive actions are beginning to be implemented, and if firearms research at the CDC, NIJ, and other federal research agencies begins to expand, important knowledge can be added to the discussions and debates in the public square.

Representative Ed Markey (D-MA), a co-sponsor of H.R. 321, recently stated that “the most fundamental government function is protecting its citizens.” www.huffingtonpost.com/rep-ed-markey/take-the-blindfolds-off-o_b_2517950.html. History has shown that other members of Congress and policymakers do not share his view of how research can contribute to this vital government responsibility. Resistance to tobacco research was among the first; shackles on firearms and global climate change research are also long standing. Attacking or preventing research because of fears that its results will change the status quo has a long history that is unlikely to see an end. Yet, with more than 30,000 Americans killed each year due to gun violence, the research called for by President Obama can be a positive step toward improving public safety and public health.

Sociologists Must Seize the Moment

As sociologists we can help by being ready to push through any open, or opening, door that signals an interest in firearms research funded by federal or state agencies and by asking why there isn’t an open door for such research where there should be.

We also offer our long tradition of scientific work to promote greater public understanding of human events like Sandy Hook. We possess the knowledge to assist communities that are confronting trauma and undergoing healing. In addition, we have an untapped capacity to conduct much needed empirical research on issues related to firearms and violence. Perhaps this will be our moment to help reduce gun violence in America.

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.

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