Here we go again . . . last weekend of American right-wing terrorists misusing a fictional constitutional right to wreak deadly havoc on people just going peacefully about their lives. Yes, here we go again; a criminal and narcissistic President trying to impersonate decency. We have no more reason to believe his “act nice” remarks as we have had for any of the unceasing stream of lies and mean-spirited histrionics he emits.
Only days before, the National Rifle Association had held its convention of 5,000 or so enthusiasts in a Dallas arena. (For the president’s protection, the arena had been declared a gun free zone.) The governor of Texas, Gregg Abbott announced his solution to gun violence: religion and the Second Amendment! He argued that “The answer to gun violence is not to take guns away” from Americans, but “to strengthen the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.” Yes, you heard that right, he said “The problem isn’t guns, it’s hearts without God [italics mine, JC].”
Inspirational! Who knew? The solution is more guns and more religion, a ridiculous prescription anywhere else on earth. To my knowledge, no one questioned whether religion includes liberal Episcopalians, Jews, or even—God forbid—Muslims. Donald Trump, ever the logician, added “If we’re going to outlaw guns, like so many people want to do—Democrats—then we are going to have to outlaw immediately all vans and all trucks,” since they can be used to kill. By the way, what exactly does it mean to “strengthen” the Second Amendment?
Putting a finer touch on the “more guns” part of Abbott’s remedy, Trump added, “We want highly trained teachers to carry concealed weapons.” Why? Because, he said, “When [killers] know there are guns inside, they’re not going in.” OK, Trump’s conviction that would-be killers would be deterred is worth study (see below); it does seem to make sense. Further, as could have been expected, Trump and Pence moved on to the bigger issue, finding a way to connect mass killing to crazed immigrants.
When such remedies are so confidently touted by Abbott, Trump, the NRA, and your next door neighbor, it would be useful to ask what remarkable wisdom led to their certainty. Maybe more stringent background checks are not a good answer after all. Maybe guns on college campuses would make everyone safer. Maybe requiring all private homes to have a gun would help. Maybe good guys should be required to carry guns. Maybe enforced fundamentalist church attendance would cure the problem. Maybe tighter restrictions on rate of fire or magazine capacity is all we need. Possibly getting the president to refrain from malicious rants would help, after all such rants did have an effect in Germany in the 1930s; they worked even on regular folks. And we can link them to courage and patriotism as Trump bravely did in Dallas, saying, “We will never give up our freedom [ostensibly to carry military weapons into shopping centers; JC]. We will live free and die free!” If you can’t hear the muskets and see the galloping horses, you’re just not a patriot.
However, regardless of how all opinions about firearms are advocated by either Republicans or Democrats, we really don’t know much. “In the area of what works to prevent shootings, we know almost nothing,” said Mark Rosenberg, who supervised the CDC’s gun research efforts in the early1990s. How would Donald Trump know? How would your favorite pundit know? How would the most dedicated, honest observer know? I can guarantee you that I don’t know either. Even if the NRA and arms manufacturers knew, they are hardly disinterested so their findings and opinions are suspect. Consequently, we are all a bunch of amateurs stumbling in the dark about what has proven to be a life-or-death quandary.
But there are ways to discover relevant facts in the matter of reducing gun violence. To use them, we’d have to understand that a vote of senators and representatives in Congress won’t do it. In fact, a perfectly run referendum of citizens cannot settle it. Opinions do not matter, not Trump’s, not the NRA’s. Nobody’s opinions matter about, e.g., magazine size, firing rate, or similar factors help; they serve only to clutter a legitimate search for truth. That is what we have now, our options solidified because each faction has already decided that its opinions are the facts.
We need facts first. Only then do opinions matter, for the second question is what to do with the facts we’ve discovered. The NRA has less interest in facts than in pleasing gun manufacturers. Many Republican elected officials have less interest in facts than in pleasing the NRA. Pity, for research using the scientific method when applied to tough quandaries has yielded countless breakthroughs in understanding otherwise unsolvable mysteries for almost three centuries. (Careful though, all research, even honest research, is not constructed with the scientific method’s rigor.) We are a nation that has frequently put scientific research to work to enlighten teaching methods, rocketry, power production, drug efficacy, and a host of issues in all fields of endeavor.
Why, then, can true scientific research not be applied to the use of our deadly devices? Fact is, it can if we do not choose to stay in the dark. We have done, and continue to do, just that, throwing up our hands with inane statements about gun control like that of Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s “You can’t regulate evil.” Or we blame mental illness. (A pundit recently observed that Republicans rarely concern themselves with mental illness except to bring it up as the reason for mass murders.) The real stopper, however, is the belief that Americans have an absolute constitutional right to have and carry firearms. Statements by the NRA, elected officials, and uninformed citizens expose an assumption that this right applies to any size or any lethality of firearm.
But according to the Supreme Court, there is no such right (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008) as discussed in “The lethal cost of playing with guns,” my post of March 4, 2018. Of course, we somehow know the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to howitzers and surface-to-air missiles, but the Court’s interpretation clarified more than that about which individuals, which rights, and which arms, thereby establishing a “floor” under individuals’ rights to “keep and bear Arms.” Whenever gun rights are brought up, Americans should carefully inspect what is being said. You will find inferences that such rights apply in such a generalized way that an uninformed listener could reasonably conclude that guns of all sorts are available to anyone. Hence I found Governor Abbott’s prescription to “strengthen” the Second Amendment strange; do we not mean to enforce all parts of the Constitution.
It is permissible for lawmakers at state or federal levels to impose whatever gun restrictions they wish as long as Court-determined minimum rights are protected. As expressed in the Court’s decision, rights guaranteed are “not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” Moreover, in United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174, the Court held that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.”
So how might legislatures and Congress go about establishing what leads certain perpetrators to violence against certain persons in certain settings with certain guns? What are the characteristics of those persons and their experiences, and what are the characteristics of weapons themselves and current efforts to control them? The former leads toward psychological considerations, mental illness, and so forth. The latter leads toward mechanical distinctions in gun manufacture, sale, characteristics, and disposition, as well as various control methods. Here arises a great problem in finding a reasonable solution, a problem created inside the walls of the Capitol itself.
Consider Jay Dickey. Dickey was a Republican congressman from Arkansas who crusaded in the mid-1990s to stop the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from funding gun violence research. Every year the Congress reauthorized what came to be known as the Dickey Amendment. However, Dickey (now deceased) later changed his mind after multiple waves of mass shooting. NRA had not changed its mind, however, and still accused the CDC of promoting gun control. So in 1996, the Republican-majority Congress threatened to strip funding from CDC if it continued research into firearm injuries and deaths. (In such matters, the chilling effect on others can depress research nationwide beyond the researchers directly affected.) Gun control research in 1996 came to a standstill.
It is not that in 2019, there is no firearms research going on, though likely not nearly enough to match the importance and apparently growing incidence of gun violence. One example is the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, a multi-disciplinary program of research and policy development. Another example is the National Institute of Justice (an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice) in its funding of gun-related studies 1993 to 1999 then 2009 to 2012, though it resumed in 2013.
Further, in 2013 the prestigious National Academies, Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine, became home to the “Committee on Priorities for a Public Health Research Agenda to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence.” The multi-disciplinary research products would be comprehensive and extensive, not capable of being concluded quickly, even if adequately funded. It is important to understand that although the formidable and professional task of prescribing research goals (not research results) is a time-consuming activity, for naught unless there are sufficient appropriations.
Unfortunately, I could not complete a more extensive look into the ostensibly broader research that might have been funded. I did find that Congress, while not continuing to prohibit CDC research, achieved the same effect by passing federal budgets in which such research went unfunded. More-or-less, that amounts to “you don’t have to refrain from researching firearm matters, we just won’t give you any money to do it.” I cannot judge whether that was due to political oversight or to a budgetary “intentional accident,” though my own direct experience in the ways of Congress would not find deceit out of the question.
Meanwhile, the NRA has stated its position is that “tax dollars should not be used to take sides in a policy debate.” That is ludicrous. Tax dollars are regularly used to pay for policy debate or facts useful to enlighten that debate. What must be avoided are claims that unbiased facts are not needed and that preconceived notions of either Republicans or Democrats constitute facts.
An excerpt as an addendum
A preparatory statement of the Priorities for a Public Health Research Agenda
to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence
Fatal and nonfatal firearm violence1 poses a serious threat to the safety and welfare of the American public. Although violent crime rates have declined in recent years, the U.S. rate of firearm-related deaths is the highest among industrialized countries. In 2010, incidents in the United States involving firearms injured or killed more than 105,000 individuals; there were twice as many nonfatal firearm-related injuries (73,505) than deaths. Nonfatal violence often has significant physical and psychological impacts, including psychological outcomes for those in proximity to individuals who are injured or die from gun violence. The recent, highly publicized, tragic mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and Tucson, Arizona, have sharpened the public’s interest in protecting our children and communities from the effects of firearm violence.
In January 2013, [the president] issued 23 executive orders directing federal agencies to improve knowledge of the causes of firearm violence, the interventions that might prevent it, and strategies to minimize its public health burden. One of these executive orders noted that “in addition to being a law enforcement challenge, firearm violence is also a serious public health issue that affects thousands of individuals, families, and communities across the Nation,” and directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with other relevant federal agencies, to immediately begin identifying the most pressing firearm-related violence research problems.
The CDC and the CDC Foundation2 requested that the Institute of Medicine (IOM), in collaboration with the National Research Council (NRC), convene a committee of experts to develop a potential research agenda focusing on the public health aspects of firearm-related violence—its causes, approaches to interventions that could prevent it, and strategies to minimize its health burden. In accordance with the CDC’s charge, the committee did not focus on public health surveillance and potentially related behavioral/mental health issues, as these will be addressed separately. The research program envisioned by the committee, which is designed to produce impacts in 3-5 years, focuses on
- the characteristics of firearm violence,
- risk and protective factors,
- interventions and strategies,
- gun safety technology, and
- the influence of video games and other media.
The committee identified potential research topics by conducting a survey of previous relevant research, considering input received during the workshop, and using its expert judgment. The committee was not asked to consider funding for the research agenda, and in addition to the CDC, it is likely that other agencies and private foundations will also implement the research agenda. Consequently, the committee identified a full range of high-priority topics that could be explored with significant progress made in 3-5 years. Research on these topics will improve current knowledge of the causes of firearm violence, the interventions that prevent firearm violence, and strategies to minimize the public health burden of firearm violence. To allow the research community flexibility in designing the research protocols, the report does not specify the methodologies that should be used to address the research topics.
The evidence generated by implementing a public health research agenda can enable the development of sound policies that support both the rights and the responsibilities central to gun ownership in the United States. In the absence of this research, policy makers will be left to debate controversial policies without scientifically sound evidence about their potential effects.