Editorial: To fight gun violence, get the facts

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Nineteen years ago, Congress put a brick on most federal funding to support basic research on gun violence. Wherever one stands on the issue of gun control, this is foolish.

If 32,000 Americans a year were dying of anything else, you can bet we’d be working overtime to find the cause and a way to stop it. But crucial research into gun safety remains undone.

Only by understanding the basic facts of gun safety in America — do trigger locks, for example, make a difference in keeping kids safe? — can we find common ground across political lines for better gun policies. Even former U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., who introduced the 1996 law that banned most federal funding for gun research, now regrets it. It was akin, he now says, to banning research into life-saving highway barriers.

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Nobody — except those who want to operate in an atmosphere of misinformation — should be afraid to gather the facts. What would be so dangerous and threatening about knowing, for instance, whether communities where more people carry guns really are safer, or whether rigorous background checks really make a difference?

The link between useful research and potential solutions was highlighted this month when Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the mayors of New York and Los Angeles wrote to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to say that 90 percent of guns used in crimes come from just 5 percent of all gun shops. Their letter was based on a new analysis by the Brady Campaign and Brady Center of gun traces from 1996 to 2000.

But note that the data stop at the year 2000. That’s that most recent the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has gathered. Why are we working with numbers that are 15 years out of date?

The mayors called on Lynch to crack down on gun shops that aren’t following the laws. They also want the federal government to annually list the top 5 percent of gun dealers supplying crime guns and to promptly share crime-gun trace data with local police. Our question: Where are other mayors on this? We’d like to see signatures on that letter from the suburbs where the suspect gun shops are located.

A new bill in Congress would lift the brick on most federal funding into gun violence research. It is long overdue.

When most federally supported research is outlawed, the vacuum is filled by those with a political agenda — pro-gun and anti-gun groups — who are less persuasive to people in the middle. Much of the best research in our nation on all kinds of issues — from the dangers of tobacco to the risks of various driving speed limits to the dangers of transfats in french fries — was made possible by significant federal investment.

Until the mid-1990s, the Centers for Disease Control was more aggressive in supporting research on the impact of guns — and maybe that was the real problem. Those studies displeased the gun lobby not because they were not credible, but because their findings were inconvenient. One study that got a lot of attention, for example, concluded that having a gun in a house, rather than make the occupants safer, significantly increased the risk of homicide by a family member or friend.

The NRA accused the CDC of “putting out papers” that “masqueraded as medical science.” More likely, they just hated the science.

To better combat gun violence, we need better information. Congress should make it a priority.

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