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Monday, December 5, 2016

A revealing thing happened in the grief-filled days that followed the massacre of helpless children and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

Virtually every conversation about gun control, about any possible remedy for gun violence, hit a roadblock. We just didn’t know a lot about the guns circulating in America.

How many guns are in the U.S.? We don’t have reliable figures.

Is there a connection between gun violence and the depictions of violence in video games and movies? Studies on that issue are few and inconclusive.

Just how do guns wind up in the hands of the mentally ill or the criminally minded? To answer that, we’d have to do a better job of tracking guns used in crimes.

This national ignorance is the cover under which the gun lobby hides. Its denialism and simplistic wishful thinking — the solution to mass shootings is more “good guys with a gun” — thrives and holds sway because we have failed to study the problem and base our policy decisions on a sound basis: evidence.

Things may be about to change. A new report pushes us one step closer to treating gun violence as a public health issue. If allowed to gain traction, this change in attitude will have huge consequences.

The report was issued by a panel of experts called together under executive order by President Obama after Newtown killings. The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council assembled the panel and has set priorities to focus research.

Obama is asking for $10 million in the 2014 budget to fund research. Time will tell if Congress has the backbone to follow through. It has folded before.

Money for such research was halted in the mid-1990s under pressure by the National Rifle Association. Ever since, we’ve been stumbling along as a nation, racking up more than a quarter-million deaths by gunfire in the last decade alone.

Because we haven’t gathered a great deal of data on how guns are used in America — for self-defense, in crime, in suicides — we have permitted all sorts of magical thinking.

Hence, some have argued that the solution to mass shootings is to get rid of “gun-free zones,” which (they reason) create easy targets for killers to seek. Then there’s the argument that simply giving children more education about gun safety will lessen their chances of playing with a weapon. What does the evidence say? Well, studies conflict. More and better research would help assess policy proposals.

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