Since 2004, research on gun violence has actually decreased.
Maybe this time will be different. Maybe the horror of first-graders gunned down in their school will shock us into action on serious gun control. I hope so, but I also know that our usual pattern is emotional catharsis that turns into inconclusive wrangling, until the next big issue distracts us, and gun control once more slips beneath the political horizon. The National Rifle Association wins again.
My view is that the destruction has been so great and the case against gun control so weak that we should move forward immediately with much tougher gun laws. It’s just common sense that we need a radical reduction in the number and kind of guns for sale. But if the past is a guide to the future, the likelihood is that, despite fervent pleas, nothing will happen. What then?
The N.R.A. hasn’t been winning only because it’s persistent to the point of fanaticism or because it has a powerful political organization. It also wins because it has a strong argumentative advantage in the political debate about gun control.
It has been able to neutralize empirical cases for control. In contrast to the debate over global warming, opponents of gun control aren’t easily cast as scientific know-nothings. On the contrary, they often plausibly present themselves as tough-minded empiricists offering facts to counter liberal emoting.
They can do this because — amazingly — there is no current scientific consensus about guns and violence. The most thorough and authoritative analysis is the 2004 report by a panel of leading experts, “Firearms and Violence,” sponsored by the National Research Council. Its startling conclusion was that we simply don’t know enough to make scientifically grounded judgments about which approaches — from gun-control measures to permission-to-carry laws — are likely to work. The panel’s primary recommendation was simply: “If policy makers are to have a solid empirical and research base for decisions about firearms and violence, the federal government needs to support a systematic program of data collection and research that specifically addresses that issue.” Or, as an expert quoted in the Times article on the report said, “The main thrust of it is, we don’t know anything about anything, and more research is needed.”
In the years since the 2004 report, research on firearms has, despite the panel’s recommendation, significantly decreased. According to a2011 Times article, researchers in the field report that “the amount of money available today for studying the impact of firearms is a fraction of what it was in the mid-1990s, and the number of scientists toiling in the field has dwindled to just a handful as a result.”
It’s not that scientists are uninterested in gun research or don’t know how to study guns’ connection to violence. It’s rather that the N.R.A. has blocked most efforts at serious gun research, going so far as to restrict access to the highly informative data available from Justice Department traces of guns used in crimes. As The Times reported, “Scientists in the field and former officials with the government agency that used to finance the great bulk of this research say the influence of the National Rife Association has all but choked off money for such work.”
As a result, things still stand pretty much as they were in 2004. There is no scientific consensus on the best approach to limiting gun violence, and the N.R.A. is blocking work that might well lead to such a consensus.
Read previous contributions to this series.
This gives the N.R.A. a strong advantage because America is a gun culture. Most Americans think of guns on analogy with alcoholic beverages: dangerous if misused, but nonetheless something to which most people should be have ready access. Guns, however, are much more similar to highly addictive drugs. Very few people should have them, and their purchase and use should be strongly regulated.
Because a solid majority of Americans accept the gun culture (and almost half say they have a gun at home), the N.R.A. has no need to defend its highly questionable assumption that guns of almost every sort should be widely available. This is why there is little chance — even at this moment of moral pain and outrage — of our passing legislation that will significantly stem gun violence. At best, we will get legislation that works at the margins by, say, making it harder for criminal and mental patients to get guns and to limit availability of some of the most destructive weapons. And the carnage will continue.
What we need is a major effort to convince the American public that most people simply should not have guns. To do this we need a continuing stream of solid research (comparable to the constant accumulation of evidence for anthropic global warming) on gun violence. If this research eventually shows that widespread gun ownership does not increase gun violence, so be it. But even the small amount of recent work (for example, that of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins) suggests this would be an unlikely outcome.
Following the horrific Newtown, Conn., murders, the American public may be willing to start moving away from the gun culture. But it will be a long process, and if we want an enduring transformation, this is the time to insist on an end to the N.R.A.’s cynical blockade of scientific research on guns and violence. The organization has announced that it plans “meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again” and holds a press conference on Friday to detail its ideas. Giving up resistance to gun research should at the top of its list.
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960,” and writes regularly for The Stone.