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Beyond a lack of political will, the deep freeze on gun violence research is willful ignorance

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CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

It wasn't panic, but the woman looked concerned. She was running toward my son and me as we made our daily walk down the path to his kindergarten class. I didn't recognize the woman but judging by her school-issued neon-green vest, I identified her as a crossing guard. Watching her worried face as she closed the distance between us, I interrupted my son's line of questions about what happened to the dinosaurs or how gravity works and pulled him a little closer.

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Unbidden, my mind flashed to "school shooting." I started listening for telltale signs of chaos at the school around the corner. I looked around to see if anyone else had broken into jog. As I turned to watch the crossing guard pass, I realized she was going to her car to get something. No big deal. Just as quickly, I was horrified and perplexed that that had been my first reaction. 

It is darkly ironic that while gun violence frequently mars the very places where we're supposed to feel safe for study, a combination of legislation, funding manipulation and political fear means we can't or don't study it at the federal level.

The effective gag on firearms research dates to 1996 and the Dickey Amendment. Named for late-Arkansas Republican Congressman Jay Dickey, who prided himself on the amount of water he carried for the NRA, the amendment attached to an appropriations bill barred the Centers for Disease Control from using federal dollars to promote gun control. The Dickey Amendment, signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton in 1997, did not ban gun violence research outright but was underscored by a reduction in funding to the CDC that made it impossible to pursue. As the Atlantic reported earlier this month, "Message received. It's had a chilling effect on the entire field for decades."

Meanwhile, researchers have increasingly sought to address gun violence as a public health crisis, which would benefit from analysis by the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. But, as ABC News reported in October 2017, "to this day, CDC policy states the agency 'interprets' the language as a prohibition on using CDC funds to research gun issues that would be used in legislative arguments 'intended to restrict or control the purchase or use of firearms.'"

It's tempting to criticize the CDC for an apparent lack of political will, but then it must be remembered that it is somehow controversial even to point out the fact that guns are designed to damage a (frequently living) target with projectiles fired at high velocity over distance.

Beyond the blind partisanship that the NRA has managed to work into the issue, the most chilling aspect of this de facto ban is the conflation of research with advocacy. Even Dickey eventually rued the amendment bearing his name, writing in a 2012 Washington Post op-ed that, "Scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries."

On campus at Washington State University, after dropping off my son (safely) at school, I glanced at a "what to do in case of an active shooter" sign in one of the classrooms. That made me remember a few colleagues who last semester only half-joked about trying to figure out which side of the seminar room would be safest in the event of an attack. I realized I was standing in the doorway and would have been first to be hit. I moved. Such was my decidedly unscientific strategy for "preventing firearm injury."

Lacking political will on guns is one thing; this is willful ignorance, and it is dangerous. At the very least we need to be free from fear to study the phenomenon of gun violence before it fatally harms our ability to study anything. ♦

Zach Hagadone is a former co-publisher/owner of the Sandpoint Reader, former editor of Boise Weekly and a current grad student at Washington State University.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Studies in Violence"

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