Like many of you I was horrified by the events on Friday in the River’s hometown of Aurora. Although I was not at the radio station myself I was obviously concerned for my colleagues and all the citizens of Aurora. It was a terrible day that sadly is becoming too familiar in our country. (I actually realized that at this point we have had so many mass shootings that when you say Aurora you will have to clarify if you mean the shooting in Aurora, Illinois or Aurora, Colorado – how awful is that?)
As someone who did not grow up with America’s gun culture I do struggle with our societies need to be so heavily armed. But I try to respect the strong opinions of others. However there is one thing I can not get my head around and that is why we can’t treat gun violence as a public health problem the same way we do other things that cause deaths. (Such as car accidents.) After a deadly shooting, the debate always, it seems, breaks down like this: One side argues for gun control, and the other argues there is no research proving those measures work. There is, in fact, very little research into gun violence at all—especially compared to other causes of death in the United States. This is due to when Congress passed an amendment in 1996 to a spending bill that forbade the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.”
The National Rifle Association had pushed for the amendment, after public-health researchers produced some studies suggesting that, for example, having a gun in the house increased risk of homicide and suicide. The NRA said the research was politically motivated. Gun-rights advocates zeroed in on statements like that of Mark Rosenberg, then the director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. In response to the early ’90s crime wave, Rosenberg had said in 1994, “We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes … It used to be that smoking was a glamour symbol—cool, sexy, macho. Now it is dirty, deadly.
Medical and public-health professionals have been pushing back—more and more forcefully in recent years. The American Public Health Association and the American Medical Association have both taken to calling gun violence a public-health problem. In 2016, more than 100 medical organizations signed a letter to Congress asking to lift the 1996 Amendment.
I know the CDC is best known for fighting diseases—it’s in the name—but its public-health scope is much wider than that. The agency studies drownings, accidental falls, traumatic brain injuries, car crashes, suicides, and more. And while mass shootings grab headlines, they account for only a small fraction of the 30,000 gun deaths a year in the United States. More than half are suicides. Yet the 1996 amendment has restricted how much the CDC can focus on gun ownership as the risk factor in those suicides.
Who knows maybe they will do the study and find other factors are more at fault for our gun violence epidemic than actual guns, but if we aren’t allowed to study the problem how are we ever going to find answers.