Congress quakes before gun data

So much of the reaction to the most recent mass shooting has been about emotions. We’re stunned, angry, sad, fearful, overwhelmed.

That’s understandable in the immediate aftermath but the truth is that’s almost all we’re left with because Congress has effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control from conducting or funding research into gun violence since 1996. Congress included the National Institutes for Health in the restrictions in 2011. President Barack Obama lifted the ban through executive order in 2013 but Congress has not provided any funding.

So, in the face of a phenomenon that accounts for almost as many deaths as traffic accidents, and more than hypertension, Parkinson’s Disease, leukemia or terrorism, we’re left with very little information beyond the death toll. Which is growing.

The most vehement opposition to any form of gun research, much less control, is the National Rifle Association. The NRA, according to OpenSecrets.org, contributed just under $1 million to Congressional candidates during the 2014 election cycle plus $28.2 million in outside spending, and spent $3.36 million lobbying in 2014.

Clearly that investment paid off: The ban on research was renewed just last summer, shortly after nine people were shot and killed in a Charleston, S.C. church. “A gun is not a disease,” former House speaker Republican John Boehner explained, “guns don’t kill people – people do.”

But that’s just the problem, we don’t know enough about the people who kill people with guns, their motivations, how they acquire their guns, and on and on and on. There’s not enough data on how effective local or state gun control measures have been, either short or long term. And as long as Congress prevents the CDC, charged with advancing public health in this country, from answering any of those questions, policy makers can fall back on hand wringing, prayers for the families of the survivors and denouncing violence rather than meaningful action.

Wednesday, before the shooters unleashed their violence in San Bernadino, Doctors for America held a rally in Washington D.C. asking Congress to end the research ban. They presented a petition signed by more than 2,000 doctors. They see it differently from Boehner and the host of elected lawmakers awash in the millions the NRA pours into campaigns, both Republican and Democratic.

“If we had a disease that was killing as many people as guns in our country, we would devote a lot more resources to make sure we had the best data, the best research to know what is most affected,” Daniel Webster, who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, told the Washington Post recently.

But apparently Congress fears data and the wrath of the NRA more than it cares about protecting Americans from the next massacre.