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End the freeze on gun research

Updated 1:19 pm, Tuesday, October 8, 2013
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Since Newtown, the country has witnessed at least seven mass shootings. The most recent was in Chicago, where suspects used a military-type rifle and a gun, injuring 13 people in a park, including a 3-year-old boy, who was shot in the head.

Earlier that same week, a shooter killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. That same day, Newtown family members and other gun legislation advocates were in the nation's capital for a long-planned trip to lobby for tighter laws.

After each shooting, there's a sense of despair that these horrible events will just keep happening. We know there'll be another one. We just don't know where. And we don't know how to stop them.

In March, the Congressional Research Service, a program of the Library of Congress, released a report on "selected implications" of mass shootings for federal public health and safety policy. The 40-page report defined mass shootings as events that occur in public places where a shooter kills more than four people. The shooters, the report said, generally act without a known motivation. By this definition, mass shootings aren't meant to advance an ideology.

Using that definition, the report identified 78 U.S. mass shootings that claimed 547 lives and injured 476 since 1983.

Buried in the research service report was this: "Fundamentally, this area likely lacks strong evidence regarding what might successfully stop potential shooters from becoming actual shooters." And this: "No systemic means of intervening are known to be effective." How sad. We simply don't know how to prevent these shootings. Score one for the National Rifle Association for stifling research, despite our obvious need for data.

For nearly 20 years, the gun lobby -- most particularly the NRA -- has thrown its awesome power behind keeping us from good data. In their rabid need to stop any attempts to regulate firearms in this country, they have managed to keep all of us -- policy markers, legislators and the rest of us -- in the dark and in danger. Without good data that would come from firearms research, you can't write good policy. And so we don't really have any.

When the NRA got Congress to remove $2.6 million from the budget at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1996, they effectively shut down firearms research. Since then, there's been a noted lack of research into gun violence in general and mass shootings in particular. The Senate restored the money, but it was used mostly to research traumatic brain injuries -- which could be considered a subset of firearms injuries, but nothing that might annoy the powerful NRA, whose Institute for Legislative Action spent nearly $7.5 million in the 2012 federal election alone.

Of that money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the organization spent more than $4.6 million in campaigns against Democrats (mostly, Pres. Obama, who won anyway), and not one single dollar against Republicans.

Why the big cash spent against one particular candidate? The president, as does any sentient being, supports research, and in January, he issued a memorandum that directs the CDC to conduct research into gun violence prevention. But that won't change anything immediately, according to a Mayors Against Illegal Guns report. Research in the field has atrophied and it will take a while to start again.

But yes, let's, as the president said, "end the freeze on gun violence research." That might help battle the "creeping resignation" that surrounds these horrors, which President Obama mentioned at a Washington memorial service.

The CDC started as the Communicable Disease Center in 1946 with a charge to prevent the spread of malaria. That's one reason the organization is based in Atlanta -- then smack in the center of the country's malaria zone. In what is considered one of the country's major scientific breakthroughs, it took government researchers just a few short years to mostly eliminate the disease.

Fast-forward to today. Imagine what an organization like the CDC could do about gun violence and mass shooting, if they only would.

Just imagine.

This column was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org).

Susan Campbell is a former columnist at the Hartford Courant and is now communications/development director at Partnership for Strong Communities, a Hartford-based nonprofit. She can be reached at slcampbell417@gmail.com.