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.