WASHINGTON, D.C. — As lawmakers on Capitol Hill called loudly for more funding to study the effects of gun ownership on public health, a new study in a leading medical journal indicated that states with higher gun ownership rates see higher rates of deaths from mass shootings. The two developments, though unrelated, suggest a growing desire to treat and potentially regulate guns the way cigarettes have been — as a dangerous, volatile element of American public life.
The new study on mass shootings, in particular, seems to call into question whether guns do make people safer. That does not appear to be the case on the whole, according to the study, “State gun laws, gun ownership, and mass shootings in the US: cross sectional time series,” published in the British Medical Journal and authored by researchers from Columbia University, New York University and other institutions.
Gun rights advocates have long held that mass shootings could only be prevented by the proverbial “good guy with a gun.” But the new study finds that, in fact, states with less restrictive gun laws are more likely to experience mass shootings, defined as a shooting in which four people or more were killed.
“States with more permissive gun laws and greater gun ownership have higher rates of mass shootings,” the researchers conclude. “There is a growing divergence in recent years as rates of mass shootings in restrictive states have decreased and those in permissive states have increased.”
The worst shooting in American history — the murder of 58 people at a country music concert in Las Vegas — took place in a state, Nevada, with a notorious lack of restrictions on gun ownership. The second-deadliest shooting — that claimed the lives of 49 at a nightclub in Orlando — happened in another state, Florida, known for its gun-related permissiveness.
The researchers also find a clear correlation between looser laws, the resultant increase in gun ownership and the subsequent rise in mass shootings. “A 10% increase in gun ownership was associated with an approximately 35% higher rate of mass shootings after adjusting for key factors,” they found.
Just as members of the media and the American public were digesting the study, Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill were calling for federal funding of similar work.
“We need to be providing public dollars for gun violence research,” said Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chairwoman of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which has oversight over the federal budget. Federally funded research into gun violence is currently prevented by the Dickey Amendment, a 1996 measure named for Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark.
But as DeLauro said on Wednesday, Dickey — who died in 2017 — came to regret the role he had in keeping social scientists and legislators from understanding the causes of gun violence. “Jay Dickey came to believe that research can make a difference,” she said. “Certainly, this Congress must as well.”
That sentiment was echoed by most of the witnesses who testified before the subcommittee. “We know too little about gun violence and its prevention,” said Andrew Morral, a senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation. He said that there was “nothing like the quality and depth” that led to the link between cigarettes and cancer. It is, of course, in the interest of groups like the National Rifle Association that no such link is ever established. The NRA did not respond to a Yahoo News request for comment about research into the public health ramifications of gun ownership, which the powerful advocacy organization has opposed.
Morral argued that it is impossible to make gun policy without first ascertaining facts about whether certain measures — he used the example of gun-free zones — are effective. But these statistics, he lamented, mostly don’t exist.
Of the witnesses, the lone dissenter was John Lott, a controversial researcher whose book “More Guns, Less Crime” has made him a popular speaker for defenders of expanded Second Amendment rights. Lott argued that the Dickey Amendment did not decrease the amount of research into gun violence. And he seemed to downplay the role of federally funded research in understanding the role of guns in American public health. “It’s important that we don’t waste valuable resources on studies that don’t add anything to our knowledge,” he said.
That closely mirrored the arguments of the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Tom Cole, R-La. His opening statement began with a paean to “true freedom from despotism,” which he implied could only be achieved through gun ownership. And he appeared to refer to federal investigation of gun violence of the kind Democrats support as “quick fixes and simple solutions” that would only worsen political divisions.
“More funding for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention will not, by itself, solve our systemic problems. Our response must be broader and more inclusive,” Cole said. To that end, he stressed the importance of mental health funding. Supporters of gun rights often argue that psychiatric maladies, not guns, are at fault for gun violence. Statistics, however, indicate that the only factor that correlates with America’s extraordinary incidence of mass shootings is the rate of gun ownership. Other countries with similar rates of mental illness have many fewer mass-shooting events.
Despite the fact that 2,444 Americans have already been killed by guns in 2019, gun violence remains, as DeLauro noted, less researched than any other cause of death. And it is the least funded, too, with one exception: falls.
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