Why Americans Can't Agree on Gun Control

The gun lobby's insistence on systematically suppressing valuable information that threatens its position stops us from learning more about gun violence and its causes.
03/18/2013 04:06 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

Guns are good and bad. We use them to hunt, target-shoot, wage wars, and stop criminals in their tracks. But guns are also used to rob, rape, and murder the innocent. Like democracy and politics, personal relationships and uneasy alliances, the issue of gun ownership isn't simple.

It's messy.

That's why the recent gun debate needs solid middle ground to stand on -- a rational place that gets us past the extreme pro gun-anti gun rhetoric in which every American either a) gets to own any gun he or she wants or b) is stripped of all guns. Neither stance works because they each fail to acknowledge a crucial part of the equation -- human nature. We are complicated beings with complex makeups and emotions.

However, the most concrete roadblock to a real solution to gun violence is figuring out who and what to believe: you can torture the data to tell any story you want. As Winston Churchill once so poetically observed, "Statistics are like a drunk with a lamppost: used more for support than illumination."

As a prosecutor I have learned that you can find "experts" to testify to almost anything. The expert waltzes in and cites lofty academic studies to prove his or her position is the right one. Then the other side counters with their expert, who wields an equally impressive resume and arsenal of data to argue the opposite.

But using this approach to solve gun violence in America has led us to a high-noon standoff.

Is there any data we can trust? Is there any other precedent or scientific model to follow that
could help us methodically reduce gun violence? Yes: America has made dramatic progress, for example, in reducing traffic injuries and deaths.

"The federal government has invested billions to understand the causes of motor vehicle fatalities and, with that knowledge, has markedly reduced traffic deaths in the United States," according to a 2012 Washington Post op-ed by Jay Dickey and Mark Rosenberg.5

Consider that scientific research brought us lifesaving measures such as child restraints, seat belts, frontal air bags, a minimum drinking age, and motorcycle helmets, saving 366,000 lives from 1975 to 2009.6

So if the U.S. government can invest millions of dollars each year on scientific, evidence-based studies to understand and prevent motor vehicle accidents -- why can't we use the same approach to reduce gun violence?"

Well, here's the kicker: we did.

From 1986 to 1996, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sponsored top-notch, peer-reviewed research into the underlying causes of gun violence. But when results showed that people with guns in their homes faced a 2.7-fold increased risk of homicide and a 4.8-fold increased risk of suicide7, the National Rifle Association (NRA) wasn't happy.

In fact, the NRA successfully lobbied Congress to block future funding, with an amendment to an appropriation bill stating: "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." 8,9

Former Congressman Dickey once championed this NRA-led policy and now regrets it. His Washington Post op-ed illuminates the truth: that the NRA managed to shut down publicly funded research on the causes of firearm injuries and deaths.10 He and other experts argue that the underlying causes of gun-related tragedies, including mass shootings, can be explained in scientific terms and prevented. They do not have to be simply left to the winds of fate.

Dickey and Rosenberg explain that, just as scientists wouldn't describe traffic injuries and deaths as "senseless" or "accidental" but as events to be studied, understood, and prevented, it's the same with gun violence. "Like motor vehicle injuries, violence exists in a cause-and-effect world ..."11

Conflicting gun data have hamstrung one of the most critical issues facing America. According to Dr. Akiva Liberman, a social psychologist and senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center in Washington, D.C., "The sad truth is that in the United States, the quality of data on crime is pathetic."12

Complicating the lack-of-research problem, Congress buckled under NRA pressure in 2003 and passed provisions to federal spending bills known as the Tiahrt Amendments, essentially making it tougher for law enforcement to track guns used in crimes back to shady gun dealers.

While a coalition of hundreds of mayors and law enforcement organizations have successfully fought to loosen some of these restrictions in the past few years,13 the Tiahrt measures (named after former U.S. Representative Todd Tiahrt) continue to thwart law enforcement's ability to investigate gun-related crimes in multiple ways, including:

The gun lobby's insistence on systematically suppressing valuable information that threatens its position stops us from learning more about gun violence and its causes.

We are actually destroying records that could help law enforcement connect the dots between guns used in crimes and gun dealers illegally selling guns, as well as people who make "straw purchases" of guns and then resell them to criminals.

In the absence of publicly funded government research on firearm injuries and deaths or comprehensive registration, inventory, or trace data, all that remain are studies from opposite sides of the gun debate. They are often too biased to offer clear, compelling conclusions. This has made it nearly impossible for Americans to move the ball forward and enact reasonable, commonsense gun policies in the interest of saving lives.

Consider the work of John R. Lott, a former law and economics professor and academic savior of pro-gun advocates. He first coauthored a controversial article with David B. Mustard in 1997 that has become the Bible for the NRA's right-to-carry movement. Based on his statistics, Lott, a Fox News contributor, argues that America is safer when more of its citizens are packing heat. In his 1998 book More Guns Less Crime, Lott lays out his bold theory with mountains of data gathered mostly from right-to-carry states.

Needless to say, his theory really shook things up. It attracted both praise and criticism from serious academic types (again, here we are faced with the dilemma of what expert to believe).

Shortly after, Lott's findings were widely discredited when at least ten academics found it seriously flawed in both data and methodology, including scholars from the Stanford Law Review,14 the Yale Law School Faculty Scholarship Series,15 Northwestern University,16 the New England Journal of Medicine,17 and even the Journal of Legal Studies18 (the same one that had first published Lott's controversial 1997 study).

In the years that followed, Lott repeatedly claimed in his own books, articles, and media interviews that national surveys showed that 98 percent of the time, people successfully defend themselves by simply brandishing a weapon. When critics pressured him to provide the evidence, Lott admitted that he'd conducted the survey himself but that all the records had been destroyed when his computer hard drive crashed.19 (Yes, the dog ate his homework.)

Lott's credibility was further damaged when it was revealed he'd been posing in online blogs as "Mary Rosh," a person he invented to be a former student of his. He used the pseudonym to attack his critics and defend his work as a scholar, as well as give his own book a rave review.20

Despite the substantial flaws revealed in both Lott's approach and his data as well as his fabrication of an online persona to support his theories, his work remains the most-cited study by those who insist we need more guns in more places and stubbornly oppose any attempt to create sensible laws to prevent further gun violence in America.21

Dennis A. Henigan, vice president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and author of Lethal Logic (Potomac Books, 2009), explains in a 2012 blog post why the results of gun surveys have failed to resolve the issue. He uses the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen shot in his own gated community by George Zimmerman, a white adult on volunteer neighborhood watch patrol.

A survey often cited by the NRA asked, "Have you yourself, or another member of your household, used a gun, even if it was not fired, for self-protection?" In Zimmerman's case, the answer would be "Yes."22 But the survey can never take into account the fact that Zimmerman ignored the dispatcher's advice to stop following Martin and wait for police to arrive, or that Zimmerman had violated neighborhood watch rules by carrying a gun in the first place, or that Martin wasn't even armed when he was shot and killed.23

This is what's fundamentally wrong with the NRA's core premise on guns and self-defense.

"The NRA has a wonderfully simple story to tell," Henigan says. "In the NRA's world, people are neatly divided into two readily identifiable groups: good guys and bad guys... The Trayvon Martin tragedy reveals the world to be far more complicated."

I hate to break it to the NRA, but as a criminal prosecutor who's dealt with too many cases of preventable gun-related tragedies, I can tell you -- just because someone legally carries a gun, that doesn't make them good ... or smart. 24

1. [Forget Survival of the Fittest: It Is Kindness That Counts," Scientific American, February 26, 2009.]
2. [Ibid.]
3. [David DiSalvo, "Does Human Biology Favor Gun Control or Gun Ownership?" Forbes, July 30, 2012.]
4. [Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Bantam, 2006).]
5. [Jay Dickey and Mark Rosenberg, "We Won't Know the Cause of Gun Violence Until We Look for It," The Washington Post, July 27, 2012.]
6. [Ibid.]
7. [Ibid.]
8. [Zachary Roth, "Blackout: How the NRA Suppressed Gun Violence Research," MSNBC.com, January 14, 2013. See http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/01/14/blackout-how-the-nra-suppressed-gun-violence-research/.]
9. [Public Law 104-208, 104th Congress, September 30, 1996. See http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-104publ208/pdf/PLAW-104publ208.pdf.]
10. [Ibid.]
11. [Ibid.]
12. [Joe Palazzolo and Carl Bialik, "Lack of Data Slows Studies of Gun Control and Crime," Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2012.]
13. [See "Mayors Against Illegal Guns," http://www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/html/federal/tiahrt.shtml (accessed January 23, 2013).]
14. [Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue III, "Shooting Down the More Guns, Less Crime Hypothesis," Stanford Law Review 55 (2003).]
15. [Ibid.]
16. ["Comments on Questions About John R. Lott's Claims Regarding a 1997 Survey, Northwestern University's James Lindgren's Personal Letter, January 17, 2003." See http://www.cse.unsw.edu.au/~lambert/guns/lindgren.html.]
17. [From the New England Journal of Medicine, David Hemenway's review of More Guns, Less Crime (1998). See http://www.amazon.com/More-Guns-Less-Crime-Understanding/dp/0226493636 (accessed January 11, 2013).]
18. [Dan A. Black and Daniel S. Nagin, "Violent Crime?" Journal of Legal Studies 27 (January 1998).]
19. [Kevin Drum, "Gun Scholarship . . . The Entire Field Seems to Have a Credibility Problem," Washington Monthly, January 11, 2003. See http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2003_01/000099.php.]
20. [Julian Sanchez, "The Mystery of Mary Rosh," Reason.com, May 2003. See http://www.Reason.com/0305/co.js.the.shtml (accessed January 23, 2013).]
21. [Jeff Poor, "Ann Coulter Rails Against NRA's Wayne LaPierre," The Daily Caller, December 31, 2012, and John Fund, "The Facts about Mass Shootings," National Review Online, December 16, 2012.]
22. [Dennis Henigan, "Why the NRA Wants the Trayvon Martin Case to Go Away," HuffingtonPost.com, May 2, 2012, see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dennis-a-henigan/why-the-nra-wants-the-tra_b_1471897.html.]
23. [Ibid.]
24. [Ibid.]