It’s not often that law enforcement officials strike a blow for public health — not to mention science — but that’s just what happened Tuesday in Washington. Maura Healey and 13 other attorneys general called on Congress to untie the hands of researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing them to study gun violence. In a letter addressed to congressmen Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Paul Ryan, and Nancy Pelosi, Healey and her counterparts from Connecticut, Virginia, California, New York, and nine other states made a strong case for restoring funds for the research needed to understand and combat the country’s epidemic of deaths by firearm.
“We strongly believe that investigation and analysis by national experts will assist our offices to to more effectively target our resources, advocacy, and enforcement.” The letter is an act of political courage in an era when Second Amendment pride seems to have, at times, trumped common sense.
More specifically, the letter asks Congress to repeal a 1996 budget provision that stipulates that no CDC funds “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The amendment, written by former US Representative Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican, has cast a pall ever since. The result: federal funding for research into the causes and effects of gun violence has been cut by 96 percent. Even Dickey no longer believes in his own measure. There’s certainly plenty of fodder for scientists to dig into: Since that time, more than 500,000 Americans have died by gun violence.
CDC research into seatbelt use and other risk factors helped cut the number of automobile deaths in the country by 19 percent from 1997 to 2013, without compromising anyone’s freedom to drive. That’s what big data, and rigorous analysis, can achieve. The use — and abuse — of firearms could so easily be the subject of a similar campaign.
While federal law sets standards for firearm regulation, states play a pivotal role, as well. Fortunately, Massachusetts is well-positioned to lead the way: The Commonwealth has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, and ranks second-lowest in gun ownership, according to a recent Boston University study. With the help that empirical national studies into firearm violence could provide, the Commonwealth and other states can keep up their fight against the scourge of gun deaths.