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executive summary

“In God we trust,” the saying goes, “all others bring data.” The free flow of information is central to the American idea. It fuels our economy, keeps our elected officials accountable, and guides our public policy choices.

But not always. Since the 1990s, the Washington gun lobby has led an aggressive effort to limit what we know about firearms. And it has largely succeeded.

Americans murder each other with guns at a rate nearly 20 times higher than people in other high-income countries.1 Among a group of 32 comparable nations, the United States accounts for 30 percent of the population, but 90 percent of the gun homicides.

Despite this epidemic, the federal government conducts almost no scientific research on how criminals get and misuse guns, or what policies are effective at stopping them. Law enforcement officials are
prohibited from sharing their analyses of crime gun trace data with policymakers and the press. And military leaders and pediatricians have been barred from discussing the subject with those under their command or care.

This report describes the many ways in which the Washington gun lobby has kept the country in the dark about gun violence, and the dire consequences for public health and public safety.

Scientists

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) leads the world in research on how violence affects public health, and how to stop it. But it conducts almost no research on the role of firearms in killing nearly 32,000 Americans every year.2

When the CDC began studying gun violence in the early 1990s, the Washington gun lobby launched a serious campaign to persuade Congress to block its funding. In 1996, the effort culminated in an amendment backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that explicitly forbade the agency from research that could be used to “advocate or promote gun control.”

In the years since, CDC funding for firearm injury prevention has fallen 96 percent. In 2012, the Centers devoted $100,000 of its $5.6 billion budget to the subject.3

Major public research funding for gun violence prevention is estimated at $2 million annually. By contrast, in 2011, the National Institutes of Health devoted $21 million to the study of headaches.4

Many academics are dependent on public support for their research. While some scholarship on firearms continues in the fields of public health and criminology, it is not nearly enough. The decline in federal research funding has driven many experts to abandon the field and kept young researchers from taking it up.

As a result, peer-reviewed research on gun violence has sharply declined. A review conducted by Mayors Against Illegal Guns showed that academic publishing on firearm violence fell by 60 percent between 1996 and 2010.

Law Enforcement

Data is the currency of modern law enforcement. With the right information, police can identify crime patterns and craft strategies to stop them. Without it, they are in the dark.

The U.S. Department of Justice was once a world leader on research into how guns find their way into dangerous hands. As recently as the 1990s, the Department published critical reports that shed new light on firearms trafficking patterns and helped law enforcement at all levels detect and deter crime.

Far from facilitating the use of data to fight crime, the Washington gun lobby has fought for years to take this tool away.

In the decades since, the Department has failed to update these seminal studies or conduct new ones, at least publicly. Long after the internet fundamentally changed the marketplace for firearms, our gun laws are informed by data that are as much as twenty years out of date.

The National Institute of Justice, the principal research arm of the Justice Department, has seen its firearms portfolio wither on the vine. Between 1993 and 1999, it funded 32 gun-related studies.5 It has not funded a single public study on firearms during the Obama Administration.

Police departments also need data to fight crime effectively. In 2006, for example, New York City analyzed “trace data” for guns found at crime scenes to identify the dealers who first sold them. The City investigated and sued 27 of those dealers. Twenty-four dealers settled and the court subsequently monitored their sales practices. As a result, the share of guns sold by those dealers that were recovered in New York City crimes dropped by 84 percent.6

Far from facilitating the use of data to fight crime, the Washington gun lobby has fought for years to take this tool away.

Beginning in 2003, the National Rifle Association persuaded Congress to impose restrictions on how cities and elected officials can use and share the information they gather about guns used in crimes. These so-called “Tiahrt Amendments” also bar the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) from using an electronic database to organize the millions of records it holds, forcing the agency charged with enforcing gun laws in the Information Age to use a paper-based filing system.

The gun lobby has also made repeated attempts to eliminate ATF’s program to track bulk sales of assault weapons by dealers in the four states that border Mexico, a vital part of the U.S. efforts to curb the flow of assault weapons to drug gangs.

In several states, the NRA has resisted efforts by mayors to require gun owners to report when their firearms are lost or stolen. At least 1.4 million firearms went missing between 2005 and 2010 — a major avenue from the legitimate market into the criminal market.7

Military Leaders and Doctors

The NRA’s lobbyists have written federal and state laws that bar military commanders and physicians from asking questions that can prevent accidents and suicides.

The last decade brought an epidemic of suicide among active-duty service members, with suicides exceeding combat deaths in Afghanistan. The majority of military suicides are committed with guns.8

In 2010, the gun lobby’s congressional allies inserted language into a defense funding bill that prohibited commanding officers from discussing firearm ownership with troops under their command. The same provision barred mental health counselors from talking with severely depressed service members about the risks posed by guns in their private possession.

In December 2012, mayors, retired flag officers, suicide prevention advocates, and the Department of Defense led a successful effort to reverse this gag order.

The gun lobby has also worked to pass state laws that prohibit doctors from discussing firearms with their patients.

A U.S. District Court judge struck down a Florida law of this kind, saying that it was intended “to restrict a practitioner’s ability to provide truthful, non-misleading information to a patient.”9 Governor Rick Scott, an NRA ally, vowed to appeal the decision.10

The gun lobby also inserted into President Obama’s health care reform law a provision forbidding federal health programs from collecting or disclosing information about firearm ownership.

Recommendations

The federal government must revive research on firearms and remove restrictions on the use of information that can reduce crime and save lives.

Elected officials should take the following steps:

  • Remove “policy riders” on federal appropriations bills that limit firearms research at the CDC and NIH and provide appropriate funding to study the role of firearms on public health.
  • Fully fund the National Violent Death Reporting System and expand it to all 50 states to improve our understanding of the role firearms play in fatalities.
  • Reconstitute the research program on gun trafficking at the National Institute of Justice to update and expand our understanding of the market for illegal guns.
  • Resume the publication of Justice Department reports on illegal gun markets and trafficking patterns.
  • Rescind the Tiahrt Amendments.
  • Expand the bulk sale reporting program for assault weapons to include all 50 states.