D.C. Dispatches

A case of missing gun data -- and of a missing attorney general


When I arrived at the inaugural meeting of the National Research Council's Committee to Improve Research and Data on Firearms on August 30, I was the only media representative on hand. No CNN. No New York Times. Not even The Washington Post. Too bad. The committee's report, due in two years, could shape the gun debate for decades to come. More important, a few stunning admissions at the meeting reveal an important fact about the body of information upon which America's existing gun control laws are built: There isn't any body of information.

The National Research Council is an arm of the National Academies. In conjunction with the Centers for Disease Con-trol and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute of Justice, and three private foundations, the council has called on 16 academics and other notables from around the country to study gun violence. The participants are mainly doctors and social science researchers, and their charge is four-fold: assess the existing research and data on firearm violence; evaluate prevention, intervention, and control strategies; describe and develop models of illegal firearms markets; and examine how firearms become embedded in a community. If you think someone might have done those things before passing the thousands of gun control laws already on the books, you're wrong.

James Mercy, associate director of research at the CDC's Division of Violence Prevention, detailed for the panel the woeful lack of information that policy makers face, especially on the national level. "We can't answer very basic questions with existing data sources about this problem," he explained. "We can't tell you in almost all jurisdictions in the country what portion of homicides are committed with assault rifles, however you choose to define that term. We can't tell you the number of permanently disabling injuries to the spinal cord and the brain caused by firearms. That's unknown. We can't even tell you the number of violent deaths that occur in schools….There are many questions like these, very basic questions, that we simply can't answer because of the poverty of data that exists in this field. This poverty of data has particularly bad consequences for the evaluation of public policy related to violence. Many of our public policies are targeted at specific types of violence, but we cannot link very specific types of firearms to suicides and homicides with existing data sources."

Officials don't know where crimes occur, how criminals get guns, what kind of guns they use, or how other risk factors, such as poverty or drug use, affect gun crimes. I asked if it was then true that all existing laws were created in absence of this critical information. Patti Culross, associate program officer of the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, brought down the house with, "I don't think it's surprising to anyone here that sometimes laws are not based on information."

Douglas Weil, research director at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, seemed to think that ignorance was just fine. "One reason for trigger locks, even if you don't think trigger locks are going to be that effective, is because it is a good way to get people to think about [gun safety]….Maybe it won't be that effective, maybe it will. It doesn't mean there is no logic behind it."

Lois Mock, an analyst at the National Institute for Justice, was discussing how difficult it was to turn good local data into reliable national numbers when she cast doubt on the very idea of national gun laws. "Firearm problems are local," she said. "They differ from one city to another, from one state to another, from rural and suburban areas to cities, even from one neighborhood in a city to another….So there is no one-size-fits-all in terms of a program to intervene in firearms violence."

Here's a topper: Even when there is data, the feds don't always use it. That's according to Dr. Stephen Hargarten, director of the Firearm Injury Center (FIC) at the Medical College of Wisconsin, one of the few organizations with reliable statewide data. He talked about what happened when the Clinton administration started its campaign against assault weapons. First it turned to the CDC and The Johns Hop-kins University. But when they couldn't find numbers on assault rifle deaths, the administration turned to the FIC. Hargarten said he told the feds that short-barreled pistols were a much bigger problem, at least in Wisconsin. "Did that inform the subsequent political discussion?" he told the panel. "No….The assault weapon ban was so much hot air."

So what now? The committee will try to pull together all the best data from around the country and devise ways to mesh it together. Critics have argued that the scholars selected for the committee and the private foundations partially bankrolling it all but guarantee an anti-gun report. On the other hand, the committee did hear from a National Rifle Association spokesman, and there was some talk of trying to calculate the benefits of gun ownership along with the costs. Let's hope the numbers the committee cooks are fair—two years from now they will be the only numbers anyone has. Remember, we got thousands of laws when there weren't any numbers at all.

Washington wanted a few words with Attorney General John Ashcroft the first week of September, but nobody could find him. Some fellow Republicans wanted to upbraid Ashcroft, and not simply for losing last year's Missouri Senate seat to a dead Democrat. Rep. Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who is chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, was upset about the Department of Justice's failure to prosecute a variety of criminal cases.

Burton, perhaps best known for shooting up watermelons in his backyard as a way of investigating the Vince Foster suicide (don't ask), wants to examine DOJ documents. Ashcroft won't produce them, and Burton is so mad that, at a September 6 hearing, he actually compared Ashcroft to Janet Reno. (Coming from Burton, that's even more of an insult than when he famously called President Clinton a "scumbag.") Ashcroft wasn't there to accept the abuse, but a civics-minded DOJ spokesperson did tell The Washington Times that "the oversight responsibility of Congress is fundamental to the constitutional system of checks and balances."

The scoldings were bipartisan. Just the day before Burton's hearing, the nation's top cop was called before the Senate Judiciary Committee by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), to answer charges that he has been pussyfooting on a gargantuan federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Ashcroft sent someone else to take the heat. So where was he? Well, he told the Judiciary Committee that he'd be busy with yet another hearing, one already scheduled by the Senate Intelligence Committee. But Intelligence cancelled its hearing, so we can only speculate about Ashcroft's whereabouts.

One guess involves Microsoft. On September 6, the DOJ announced its decision to abandon the Clinton-era effort to break up the giant software company. So was Ashcroft spending the day before in depressed seclusion at the prospect of a big one that got away? Probably not. Maybe he jetted to Redmond to drink champagne with Bill Gates? Equally unlikely.

Durbin knew perfectly well that Ash-croft wouldn't be present, but nevertheless delivered a tongue-lashing. The Illinois Democrat has been saving Americans from themselves since 1987, when he penned legislation banning smoking on short-distance commercial flights. At issue in the hearing was a 1999 federal case that the Clinton administration filed against the industry. Just as the breakup of Microsoft was made unlikely by a court decision, two-thirds of the Clinton anti-tobacco case—the parts attempting to recoup billions in health care costs—have already been thrown out of court.

However, the best part of the lawsuit remains: Durbin wants to go after Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, legislation designed to help the federal government squash organized crime. A favorable ruling would allow the court to demand a "disgorgement" of the industry's ill-gotten gains. That would let the government seize tobacco companies' assets the same way it can seize a drug dealer's car. There are literally billions of dollars at stake, and Durbin is not convinced that Ashcroft shares his anti-tobacco enthusiasm.

This piece of political theater went on for two hours. "The Department of Justice's management of this case seems unprofessional at best," said a steamed Durbin. "At worst, they are killing this lawsuit and don't have the political courage to admit it publicly….The American people deserve their day in court, but even more importantly, they deserve competent and committed legal representation."

Harsh words. No doubt Ashcroft would have responded effectively had he been there. Where was he? Could it be true that he was laying a wreath at a Confederate memorial across the Potomac? Surely not. Acting Assistant Attorney General Stuart Schiffer was present in Ashcroft's stead. He cited the 26 government attorneys and eight staff members working on the case full time, and mentioned plans to add four more bodies. He said the effort cost the feds $23.2 million this fiscal year, and that he expects to ask for more than $40 million for fiscal year 2002. That should make us all feel better.

After Schiffer left, Durbin staged Act II of his melodrama. He trotted out another panel, including a woman who blamed the tobacco industry for the emphysema that came 40 years into her life as a smoker. A representative from the Clinton-era Department of Justice detailed how diligently he had sought funds for the case on his watch. Two legal scholars later debated the wisdom of using the judiciary to attack the tobacco industry. Ashcroft wasn't there to hear any of it. Could he have been tied up with the Washington visit of Mexican President Vicente Fox?

Actually, yes. Ashcroft's office says that's just how the attorney general spent the day, but that's all the details I got from his staff. Given how many frustrated lawmakers were lined up to talk to Ashcroft, whoever he met with at the White House was singularly fortunate. As for what Ashcroft spent the day talking about, well, never mind. Maybe he talked to Mexican officials about amnesty for illegal aliens. Or maybe they discussed browser bundling. Or maybe they snuck out to the Rose Garden for a quick smoke. After all, it had been a pretty intense week for everyone.