Gun Control

The Problem With the 'Public Health Research on Gun Violence' That Obama Wants You to Pay For


One element of President Obama's gun control agenda is research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which may sound unobjectionable. It is not. Here is how the White House describes the situation:

For years, Congress has subjected the [CDC] to restrictions ensuring it does not "advocate or promote gun control," and some members of Congress have claimed this restriction prohibits the CDC from conducting any research on the causes of gun violence. However, public health research on gun violence is not advocacy.

That last part is debatable, to say the least. In Reason's April 1997 cover story, gun policy scholar Don Kates and two co-authors persuasively argued that "public health research on gun violence," as distinct from research by criminologists, is anti-gun propaganda in pseudoscientific disguise, starting from the premise that firearms are disease vectors that need to be controlled by the government:

Contrary to [the] picture of dispassionate scientists under assault by the Neanderthal NRA and its know-nothing allies in Congress, serious scholars have been criticizing the CDC's "public health" approach to gun research for years. In a presentation at the American Society of Criminology's 1994 meeting, for example, University of Illinois sociologist David Bordua and epidemiologist David Cowan called the public health literature on guns "advocacy based on political beliefs rather than scientific fact." Bordua and Cowan noted that The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, the main outlets for CDC-funded studies of firearms, are consistent supporters of strict gun control. They found that "reports with findings not supporting the position of the journal are rarely cited," "little is cited from the criminological or sociological field," and the articles that are cited "are almost always by medical or public health researchers."

Further, Bordua and Cowan said, "assumptions are presented as fact: that there is a causal association between gun ownership and the risk of violence, that this association is consistent across all demographic categories, and that additional legislation will reduce the prevalence of firearms and consequently reduce the incidence of violence." They concluded that "[i]ncestuous and selective literature citations may be acceptable for political tracts, but they introduce an artificial bias into scientific publications. Stating as fact associations which may be demonstrably false is not just unscientific, it is unprincipled." In a 1994 presentation to the Western Economics Association, State University of New York at Buffalo criminologist Lawrence Southwick compared public health firearm studies to popular articles produced by the gun lobby: "Generally the level of analysis done on each side is of a low quality. The papers published in the medical literature (which are uniformly anti-gun) are particularly poor science."

The public health approach to guns has yielded findings like this one by emergency room physician Arthur Kellermann, cited uncritically by Skeptic magazine Publisher Michael Shermer in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed piece:

Here's another sobering statistic. According to a 1998 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, for "every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides." In other words, a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense.

From this Shermer concludes that "arming yourself isn't an answer." But as scholars such as Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck have been pointing out for decades (and as Kates et al. note in their Reason article), counting only shootings vastly underestimates the use of guns for self-defense, which according to survey data typically involves nothing more than brandishing a weapon to deter an attacker.

I described a more recent example of what public health research on gun violence has to offer in the February 2010 issue of Reason:

In Philadelphia, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, possessing a gun is strongly associated with getting shot. Since "guns did not protect those who possessed them," epidemiologist Charles C. Branas and four co-authors conclude in the November American Journal of Public Health, "people should rethink their possession of guns." This is like noting that possessing a parachute is strongly associated with being injured while jumping from a plane, then concluding that skydivers would be better off unencumbered by safety equipment. 

Branas and his colleagues paired 677 randomly chosen gun assault cases with "population-based control participants" who were contacted by phone shortly after the attacks and matched for age group, gender, and race. They found that "people with a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun."

The researchers suggest several possible explanations for this association: "A gun may falsely empower its possessor to overreact, instigating and losing otherwise tractable conflicts with similarly armed persons. Along the same lines, individuals who are in possession of a gun may increase their risk of gun assault by entering dangerous environments that they would have normally avoided. Alternatively, an individual may bring a gun to an otherwise gun-free conflict only to have that gun wrested away and turned on them."

The one explanation Branas et al. don't mention is that people who anticipate violent confrontations—such as drug dealers, frequently robbed bodega owners, and women with angry ex-boyfriends—might be especially likely to possess guns, just as people who jump out of airplanes are especially likely to possess parachutes. The closest the authors come to acknowledging that possibility is their admission, toward the end of the article, that they "did not account for the potential of reverse causation between gun possession and gun assault"—that is, the possibility that a high risk of being shot "causes" gun ownership, as opposed to the other way around.

Why would Obama want to waste taxpayer money on this sort of tendentious, prejudice-confirming research? I bet you can figure that out—without a government grant.

NEXT: 23 Proposals on Guns from Obama, Mali Islamists Raid BP Oil Field in Algeria, Whole Foods CEO Calls Obamacare Fascist: P.M. Links

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  1. Are we to understand that Our Glorious Leader wasted four years not
    looking into the causes of gun violence that caused the deaths of hundreds of black children in our cities, but just let some white kids
    get shot, he’s all ready to figure out why? Why does Obama hate black kids and continue the war on drugs? What do black folks get for their 95% of OGL?

    1. We can only assume that he is still upset about only getting 99.5% support from this demographic. They must be made to suffer until this is corrected.

  2. …advocacy based on political beliefs rather than scientific fact.

    GASP! It’s a good thing that kind of shenanigan is isolated to the science of gun control.

    1. The War on Science has no place in the Obama administration.

    2. Yes. Would be a shame were things like climate science, and economics subjected to such advocacy.

  3. Fuck all government funded research.

      1. Yes, like DARPA. Ideally Einstein and others should privately get investors to fund development of useful products like atom bombs, and then pitch those products to people, businesses, and governments who might find them useful. Fuck if I care.

  4. If there is legitimate “disease control”, it is contagious shit like ecoli and smallpox- not fake “epidemics” like fatness, gayness, or violence.

    1. we don’t find it too great an imposition on liberty to ban private ownership of military grade weapons. Why not add semiautomatic assault weapons to the list?Of course, weapons and ammunition bans will not necessarily prevent another Sandy Hook. A new hotline won’t reveal every psychopathic shooter. And self-defense strategies can’t protect you absolutely. But these initiatives could curtail the carnage, which is a rational response to these irrational acts.

      They are also responses even freedom-loving libertarians can live with. I know because I am a lifelong libertarian, who grew up with shotguns used for hunting and for 20 years owned a .357 Magnum pistol, with hollow-tip bullets, for home protection.

      With “libertarians” like Michael Shermer, Robert A Levy and Nick Gillespie who needs statists?

      1. In other words, gun control doesn’t have to be perfect or even effective.

        Freedom, on the other hand, must be perfect or it will be subjected to correction via imperfect, ineffective regulations.

        Makes sense to me.

      2. “…we don’t find it too great an imposition on liberty to ban private ownership of military grade weapons. Why not add semiautomatic assault weapons to the list?”

        So….an admission that it is an imposition on liberty.
        Personally I dont give a fuck what they find to be an acceptable imposition on my liberty.

        1. And I don’t give a fuck if you’re put in chains because you exercised too much personal liberty, e.g., committed murder.

          Maximum personal liberty is not supported by anyone, as everyone knows that individual liberties conflict. There is not a single government-backed regulation protecting your ass from the daintiest of assaults that you reject. Drawing a line at a different place from you doesn’t make someone on the side of evil vs. your total goodness.

          1. Yes it does.

          2. See my comment below shitstain. Mendacious, duplicitous, outright lies.

          3. You want to outlaw victimless crimes; we don’t.

      3. With “libertarians” like Michael Shermer, Robert A Levy and Nick Gillespie who needs statists?

        holy shit – that’s from the piece Nick did the other day?? …did. not. read. that.

        i think i understand those guys frothing mad about “cosmotarian” squishyness now a whoooooole lot better. fuck.

        as i mentioned before… im not even like a ‘gun guy’, but even i draw the line WAY closer to “until you repeal the 2A you can take your ‘sensible regulation’ and stick it up your ass” I didnt realize people @ Reason were quite so… varied in their feelings about it

        1. It’s not from the Gillespie piece, it’s from a Shermer piece that was quoted in the Gillespie piece. Trying to put Gillespie in the same category as Shermer is a ridiculous stretch.

      4. After admitting that the measures are ineffective they then say “But these initiatives could curtail the carnage” without saying how. Or to what extent.

        What a bunch of fucking T o n y grade drivel.

      5. No right is too settled to prevent it’s restriction in the pursuit of nebulous and uncertain ends.

      6. Can you give us a link to the objectionable Gillespie piece? I missed it. Tia.

        1. Actual evidence? Isn’t it enough that Gillespie doesn’t write exactly what SIV wants him to write?

          1. Thanks. I guess I’ll stop looking.

    2. I’d give Gillespie a break. His gun article yesterday was filled with holes, particularly in regards to his apparent belief that no group of rebels has ever defeated a more powerful military, but he’s pretty good on other issues.

      It’s not like his articles swerve left often enough for me to care about the few times I disagree with him.

      1. Nick can go to HuffPo or The Atlantic.He does alright on TV but aside from being a cosmotarian douchebag in print he is a lousy and lazy writer.


  5. Fuck all of these “skeptics” too. What a bunch of party-line following, authority-worshiping, true believers they always turn out to be.

    1. No shit.

  6. Is there any public health research that isn’t pseudoscientific propaganda? No, probably not.

  7. Even when the research itself is done validly, the presentation is often made through a partisan lens. Broad statements are made in the abstract, and then suffer death by a thousand qualifications and redefinitions when you actually read the meat of the paper…. which the press never does.

    For example, all the claims about thousands of children killed in gun violence every year that appear in abstracts and headlines… and if you look at the details, you see they’re defining anyone below age 26 as a child.

    1. That’s my favorite media tendency.

      ‘We must save our (24 year old) children from the perils of Four Loko!’

      ‘Drone strikes mostly only kill militants! Note: Militant is here defined as any male over the age of 14, regardless of whether or not he is a military threat.’


  8. Those dog fuckers at the CDC need to stick to real communicable diseases.*

    *SLD Abolish the CDC

  9. “CDC … public health research on gun violence”

    What does that even fuckin’ mean? Can the left ever say anything that isnt mendacious, duplicitous, or just an outright fucking lie?

    1. Because having one’s bodily tissues torn to shreds by metal projectiles has nothing to do with one’s health.

      1. is it ccontagious?

      2. actually, they should really look into Ageing as well. it kills millions every day! i discovered recently i have it too. my doctor gives me maybe 55 years to live. and thats if im lucky

      3. Well T o n y, you and I finally have something in common. Neither one of us has a clue what you are talking about. Jesus. Are you Drunk?

      4. Oh and it is worth pointing out that in reply to my accusation of your being mendacious, you are being mendacious. Gold. Just golden.

        Dont you ever get tired of having your ass handed to you?

      5. Then the CDC really needs to start looking at the contagion of hammers in American society, given that more people are killed by them than rifles of any kind, including “assault” rifles.

        Government by metaphor.

  10. What does that even fuckin’ mean? Can the left ever say anything that isnt mendacious, duplicitous, or just an outright fucking lie?

    With regard to your second statement; No, No, and No.

    What does that even fuckin’ mean?

    Give us truckloads of money and we’ll deliver on any politically desired “scientific” result you want. I’m Arthur Kellerman and I’m for sale.

    1. A study just concluded by top CDC scientists has discovered that 100% of CDC scientists know which side their bread is buttered on.

  11. This is like having to pay your wife’s divorce attorney.

  12. Read this interesting article by criminologists – and physicians – on public health studies of guns:
    Guns and Public Health: Epidemic of Violence or Pandemic of Propaganda?

    Interesting excerpts:

    In 1979 the American public health community adopted the “objective to reduce the number of handguns in private ownership,” the initial target being a 25% reduction by the year 2000.[3] Based on studies, and propelled by leadership from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the objective has broadened so that it now includes banning and confiscation of all handguns, restrictive licensing of owners of other firearms, and eventual elimination of firearms from American life, excepting (perhaps) only a small elite of extremely wealthy collectors, hunters, or target shooters.

    … and …

    We believe we have documented an emotional anti-gun agenda in the treatment of firearms issues in the medical and public health literature. While the anti-gun editorials and articles discussed had the superficial form of academic discourse, the basic tenets of science and scholarship have too often been lacking. We call them “anti-gun health advocacy literature” because they are so biased and contain so many errors of fact, logic, and procedure that we can not regard them as having a legitimate claim to be treated as scholarly or scientific literature.

    1. In the 80s, public health researchers adopted gun control as a cause and started cranking out “study” after “study”, often paid for by the taxpayers, that invariably found that gun control was good and guns were bad. The CDC was coopted by these partisans.

      In response, in the late 1990s, Congress prohibited the CDC from using taxpayer funds from engaging in this kind of political advocacy. See: AR-13: Prohibition on Use of CDC Funds for Certain Gun Control Activities……shtm#ar13

      CDC interprets the language in the CDC’s Appropriations Act to mean that CDC’s funds may not be spent on political action or other activities designed to affect the passage of specific Federal, State, or local legislation intended to restrict or control the purchase or use of firearms.
      The Joyce Foundation has largely stepped into the breach and has been the principal funder of gun control advocates and researchers for the last few years:…..un_control

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