Opinion: Science offers a path away from gun violence

I am an NRA member, and I don’t want my children or grandchildren to be shot and killed. Neither do millions of both gun advocates and gun-control proponents. As a nation, we’ve been conditioned to feel we must overwhelm, out-vote, or out-scream those we see as opponents. Our real enemy is neither the right nor the left; neither advocates of gun rights or gun control. The real enemy in efforts to prevent gun violence — and what we really have to fear — is not terrorism, drugs, gang violence, or mental illness. Rather, it is fatalism — the sense that we are forever deadlocked in a political stalemate that makes us powerless to stop the slaughter.

The NRA leadership wants its members to believe that any efforts to understand and prevent gun violence will result in all civilians losing all their guns, but that is not the case. This was their “zero-tolerance” policy, and while it may have been good for the NRA leadership, it has been disastrous for this country. It is possible to find interventions that will both reduce gun violence and protect the rights of law-abiding citizens to have and use guns. It is not an either/or choice. We can, in fact, have two goals and achieve both.

We can take a lesson from cancer research to see what it means to maximize two objectives simultaneously. In using chemotherapy, there are two goals. First, to stop the cancer; and second, to protect the patient’s vital organs. There are many drugs that will stop the cancer, but they will also damage the patient’s vital organs to the point where the patient will die. That’s why research aims to find treatments that are both effective and safe. Cancer research has given us new drugs and approaches that achieve both goals, but these could not have been done without research to see what actually works. It is the same with gun violence: we need to find things that work to both reduce gun violence and protect gun rights.

We need to know what is safe and effective because when we act without knowing, our actions may have horrific consequences. Let’s look at a miracle drug first marketed in 1957 in West Germany under the trade-name Contergan. It was touted as a miracle drug for pregnant women because it cured the two big problems of pregnancy — nausea and insomnia. But in the U.S. the FDA refused to approve it, even though the drug company tried six different times. A brave woman physician, Dr. Frances Kelsey, would not approve it unless it could be shown to be both safe and effective. She saved this country from a disaster because, by the early 1960s, more than 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformed or absent limbs and other serious birth defects. The drug was thalidomide.

We are asking lawmakers to make decisions without data, without knowing whether the measures they need to decide on are safe and effective. We are asking them to decide on measures like campus carry, universal background checks, identifying individuals at high risk for violence, or bans on semi-automatic rifles without knowing whether they are either safe or effective. And effective means effective at both reducing gun violence and protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners. We are pushing them to approve the equivalent of thalidomide for gun violence.

But we don’t have to stay stuck, or push blindly ahead. Public health science can get us the answers that we need. Starting in the 1980s, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began a scientific research program to find out what works to prevent gun violence. But in 1996 Congress, with prodding from the NRA, threatened the gun violence research that was being done by CDC. Part of the effort to stop gun violence research at CDC was the “Dickey Amendment,” which said that none of the federal funds for CDC’s injury center could be used “to promote or advocate gun control.” The Dickey amendment did not prohibit research, but prohibited lobbying for gun control legislation. It had a chilling effect. Soon the research effort at CDC was reduced by more than 90 percent. Congressman Dickey, the author of the amendment, later reversed his position and called for bipartisan collaboration to restore funding for research to find interventions that both reduce gun violence and protect gun rights.

It would not take much to restart this effort at CDC, an agency which houses the largest collection of violence prevention professionals of any place in the world. In the 1960s, Congress saw that young people were being killed on our highways at unacceptably high rates and they appropriated $200 million annually for research that led to safer cars, safer roads, and safer drivers. This research has saved more than 350,000 lives — all done without banning cars. Investments in gun violence prevention research through CDC can yield results that are every bit as impressive.

Scientists at CDC are anxious to do this research, but the recent directors of CDC have been willing to let this eminently solvable problem fester because they fear that the NRA will prod Congress into cutting public health programs that are viewed as more central and critical to CDC’s mission, fighting infectious diseases like ebola or influenza and chronic diseases like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and stroke.

We are caught in a cycle that we need to break out of. Congress and CDC’s directors are afraid to tackle the problem of gun violence, so scientists can’t provide guidance to legislators about what gun violence prevention interventions would be both safe and effective. More people are killed by guns, there are more and deadlier mass shootings; people become more afraid and, out of fear, they buy more guns; and the toll of gun violence goes up, and on and on in a vicious, deadly cycle.

Fear on top of fatalism is a particularly deadly mix. Silence and shouting won’t solve the problem — but science can and the time to move is now.

Dr. Mark L. Rosenberg is a grandfather, president emeritus of the Task Force for Global Health in Decatur, and was the founding director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, where he retired as assistant surgeon general after 20 years of government service.