EDITORIALS

Maine, the country should overcome fear to illuminate causes of gun violence

A Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy takes in guns from motorists trading them in at the 'Gifts for Guns' gun buyback in Compton, California, January 21, 2013.
DAVID MCNEW | REUTERS
A Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy takes in guns from motorists trading them in at the 'Gifts for Guns' gun buyback in Compton, California, January 21, 2013.
Posted Jan. 28, 2013, at 3:29 p.m.

Even though about half of Maine households have at least one gun, the state had the third-lowest rate of firearm use in violent crimes in the country in 2009. But at what rate are guns used in Maine to threaten an intimate partner? And why are Maine people far more likely to turn a gun inward, to commit suicide?

It would help to have a better understanding of the conditions that contribute to all forms of gun-related violence and death.

That’s why Maine’s congressional delegation should wholeheartedly back President Barack Obama’s memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other scientific agencies to research gun violence. If the country has the ability to study the root causes of violence and learn of ways to prevent the harm, then only ignorance or fear would hold it back.

Maine’s leaders can support the effort by voting to fund the research, which would investigate the relationship between video games, media images and violence and would expand the National Violent Death Reporting System to collect anonymous data about homicides and suicides in all states — about the type of firearm used, whether the firearm was stored loaded or locked and specifics about young people’s gun access.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins is co-sponsoring the Violence Against Women Act, and in December she called for the establishment of a National Commission on Violence to examine and act on the factors contributing to mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn. She has the credibility that any discussion about gun violence needs, and we hope she continues to use her position of power to encourage understanding. Newly elected independent Sen. Angus King can also bring a reasonable tone to the discussion.

Gathering good data about the factors that contribute to gun violence is a basic step toward overcoming the fear that has historically directed the gun debate.

In the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the CDC researched gun violence. In 1993, for example, researchers published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine about whether people who had guns were likely to need them for protection. They found that rather than provide protection against an intruder, the presence of guns in a home increased the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance. The National Rifle Association turned to Congress to prevent future studies.

Three years later, in 1996, some in Congress targeted funding for the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which collected and analyzed data about gun use. Congress pulled the exact amount — $2.6 million — the CDC had spent on gun research the previous year. Though the funding was later restored, it was earmarked for traumatic brain injury. Language added to the final appropriation made the point of the funding diversion clear: “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the [CDC] may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Though the wording was vague about what would and would not be permitted, researchers didn’t want to risk their jobs or their employer’s funding. Indeed, funding was pulled at other agencies when they conducted gun-related research. In 2009, for example, a study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism examined whether carrying a gun increases or decreases the risk of firearm injury. Congress then added the limiting language it had previously applied to the CDC to all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers at places like the CDC and National Institutes of Health are ethically required to be transparent and clear about their methods, and their reports are widely critiqued. What’s more, no one in Congress is forced to act on the researchers’ findings. Lawmakers are free to criticize studies, but it is unfair for anyone to stifle them. Maine lawmakers should lead the call for an open dialogue based on data.

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