With each mass shooting the latest in Albuquerque on Saturday, creepily, on a day gun advocates designated "Gun Appreciation Day" familiar questions resurface. Are people with guns in their homes safer or not? Does the availability of high-capacity magazines increase deaths? Do more rigorous background checks help?
Sadly, these questions cannot be fully answered. Federal funding for such research was cut off years ago.
By 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was stressing the importance of studying the public health impacts of guns. When Dr. Art Kellermann's 1996 Emory University study, which was funded by the CDC, found that a gun kept in a home, rather than provide protection, was 43 times more likely to cause the death of a family member, the National Rifle Association freaked and lobbied lawmakers to cut CDC funding of gun research.
Congress obliged, removing $2.6 million from the CDC budget precisely what the CDC spent on gun research in 1995.
Last Wednesday, the president reversed that decision in an executive order instructing the CDC and other agencies to resume research into the causes and prevention of gun violence, a potentially significant measure.
"The handful of people who were active in the field were all pleased with the decision," Kellermann tells me. "It's been a long time since anyone has been able to do high-impact research."
John Lott disagrees. His densely statistical 1998 book, "More Guns, Less Crime," extolling the virtues of firearms for self-defense is the go-to reference for gun advocates.
For him, there's already enough research. "The government puts out a tremendous amount of data," he said. "All these different government agencies are churning it out. Download those files and copy them into your data set," which is how Lott conducted his own research, incidentally.
Additionally, government funding is biased, creating politically slanted data against guns, he believes. "They just cannot keep politics out of their decisions," and researchers give government agencies the answers they want "because that's where researchers get their research money."
"Nonsense," says Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, who had his CDC funding cut in 1996.
"Journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association do not relax their standards because the work involves guns. We're not advocates. We are scientists in the public interest, and when the data suggest a conclusion about policy, we think it's our obligation to point that out."
Kellermann, now director of Rand Health in Washington, concurs: "Rand will not accept money from anyone if they do not have in writing the freedom to independently publish their findings. I have walked away from projects if the funder indicated any reluctance to agree to those terms."
So has Wintemute, who currently funds the Davis program out of his own pocket.
However, say we don't need to fund more studies since, according to Lott, government is already doing so much research. How can we trust government research if, as Lott also maintains, it's politically driven?
Aside from this incongruent logic, Lott's research and ethics have been criticized by numerous scholars, academics, journalists and even conservatives such as Michelle Malkin. Lott has been caught massaging data and failing to produce requested evidence. When he was exposed for posing under an alias to attack his critics online, an outraged scientific community accused him of creating a "false identity for a scholar."
"In most circles," wrote Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy, "this goes down as fraud."
Maybe Lott's work needs revisiting, perhaps by other researchers. By allowing the CDC to conduct and fund new research, we'd know more about what happens when good guys have guns, as well as bad guys, and thereby craft better policy.
The data currently available "are useful up to a point," Kellermann said, "but they have significant gaps in the kinds of information they've collected. Secondary analysis of a federal data set can be done inexpensively, but that's not going to get us where we need to go in answering some of the questions and issues before us now."
Wintemute adds: "What serious scientist argues against taking on the important questions that can only be answered by collecting new data?"
Years of well-funded injury prevention research have reduced deaths in automobile crashes, fires and drownings without banning cars, swimming pools or matches. Why not guns?
Ironically, Kellermann's 1996 study wasn't about gun control. "It was research to help people make an informed decision for themselves as to whether or not law-abiding citizens wanted to keep loaded and readily available guns in the house, and if they do, understand objectively the balance of benefits and risks that decision entails. Why would you want to deny that information to the public?"
Perhaps because science and knowledge can be very powerful. Just ask the tobacco companies.