The NRA vs. The CDC

While strolling through the local library on my lunch break today, I couldn’t help but see the cover story on the New York Daily News. “Killed by the NRA”, it screamed. In their typical sensational tabloid fashion, this referred to the fact that while the Centers for Disease Control spend millions of dollars annually studying how to reduce deaths from things like Lyme disease (22,000 deaths in 2012, CDC budget for prevention programs: $10.6M), they are forbidden by law to spend any significant amount of money studying anything that could even remotely be connected to “gun control”.

Back in 1993, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study led by Arthur Kellerman and funded by the CDC that found a strong link between having a gun in the home and an increased risk of homicide. The NRA, through its lobbyists, screamed bloody murder. They wanted to completely wipe out the division of the CDC that funded the study, but instead wound up having an amendment inserted into a 1997 budget package which stated that “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.” While it didn’t specifically ban research on gun control, the intent was made very clear when that same budget took the exact amount that the CDC spent on firearm safety research the previous year and earmarked it specifically for brain trauma research.

With the writing on the wall, the CDC has not funded any real gun safety research since then.

But as the mass shootings mount, there’s an increasing amount of calls for the “ban” to be lifted. And a corresponding amount of angry protests from the “gun nuts”. It’s hard to see why there should not be more research into gun safety. With all the hearsay and anecdotal evidence being tossed around in the discussions, wouldn’t it be better for both sides to have some real statistics?

The standard number that comes up is the one that says there are about 30,000 gun deaths annually. This is a bad number, for two reasons.

First, what about gun-related injuries? Each time there’s a mass shooting, the press will announce the numbers like “four dead, seven wounded”. But in all the subsequent debates, we only focus on the dead. It’s like the wounded just got paper cuts. And if you live in a major city, I’d wager that hardly a day goes by without something appearing deep in the papers about someone being injured in a “drive-by” shooting. Those people are also invisible in the statistics.

A CDC study could get hospital emergency room admission figures from all across the country, and give us some answers to questions like:

How many gunshot injuries are there per year?
How many of these are accidentally self-inflicted?
How many of these are innocent bystanders?
What are the health care costs of these injuries?
Is there a correlation between the severity of injury and the type of gun?

Getting these figures would be a huge step forward in the discussion.

Secondly, the 30,000 number includes suicides. In well over half of those “gun-related deaths”, the killer and the victim were the same person. With the current emphasis on the mental health issues in the discussions, why not take a look at guns and suicide?

There’s a good deal of data available already from the professionals who study suicide (which I’m not going to refer to here – it’s simple laziness on my part, thereby making me guilty of the same refusal to cite sources that annoys me when others do it. Oh well.). One thing they’ve found is that suicide is very often an act of impulsiveness. People don’t usually plan out elaborate suicides. Put something in the way that makes it just a little harder to kill themselves, and suicide rates go down. I recall reading that in Washington state, there was a bridge that was quite popular with suicide jumpers. The authorities simply put higher railings on the bridge, and the suicide rate went down. People didn’t just go to another bridge or try another method; the overall rate went down. Make the act just a little bit more difficult, and people reconsider.

There’s also the irrevocability of Suicide by Gun. Slitting your wrists and poisoning take time. You’ve got a few minutes to be discovered or change your mind and call 911. Also, those methods – even jumping – aren’t often perfectly effective at ending it all. And people who survive a suicide attempt very rarely try it again. “I realized that all my problems were solvable,” said one suicide-by-jump survivor (according to what my memory tells me I read once not too long ago), “Except one – I was in mid-air.” With a gun, however, there’s very little time after pulling the trigger to change your mind. Suicide by Gun is something like 95% effective – the most effective of all common methods.

Among other things, a CDC study could tell us “How much does the presence of a gun in the home affect the likelihood of a suicide in that home?” Given what we know about suicides, wouldn’t it make sense to find out just how much restricting access to guns reduces their number?

It’s also worth noting that by law, guns are exempt from all Federal product safety requirements. It shouldn’t be a secret who’s behind that.

It boggles my mind that such simple things are totally blocked by the Gun Lobby. It should be a simple matter to be able to know that your gun will work when you need it to, and will not fire when you would rather it didn’t. And I cannot see any reason for objecting to finding the basic information that will help you reduce the number of both accidental injuries and suicides from guns.

The utterly irrational panic that the NRA exhibits when people start asking these questions makes me really have to wonder – what are they afraid of? What don’t they want us to find out?


The articles inside the Daily News, if you’re interested:

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