Opinion: This myth about guns is killing us

Georgia lawmakers will once again consider legislation allowing licensed weapons permit holders to carry firearms on college campuses. AJC FILE

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Georgia lawmakers will once again consider legislation allowing licensed weapons permit holders to carry firearms on college campuses. AJC FILE

Solutions: Part 1 of 2

The idea that gun violence prevention research is at odds with gun rights is just not true.

When an 18-year-old took a semiautomatic rifle to an elementary school in Texas last month and killed 19 students and 2 teachers, I was looking after my 10-year-old grandson. He knows I have spent most of my life trying to prevent gun violence.

I had to tell him we had failed -- again.

The media is filled with reasons for this failure, including substance abuse, gang violence, mental illness and easy access to semiautomatic weapons. But I believe that at the root of our troubles lies a central myth that is killing us. Over the past decades, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has successfully set up a false dichotomy in the hearts and minds of American politicians and gun owners. They said you can have research into preventing gun violence -- or you can have a right to guns.

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Mark Rosenberg, former president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health, said his contacts inside the CDC “tell me that they never, ever have seen censorship as limiting and pervasive as it is right now.” SPECIAL

Mark Rosenberg, former president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health, said his contacts inside the CDC “tell me that they never, ever have seen censorship as limiting and pervasive as it is right now.” SPECIAL

Combined ShapeCaption
Mark Rosenberg, former president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health, said his contacts inside the CDC “tell me that they never, ever have seen censorship as limiting and pervasive as it is right now.” SPECIAL

It’s “either-or”, they said: You can’t have both.

This is wrong. And we are all paying the price.

We now have a deeply entrenched and highly polarized divide in our society between pro-gun and anti-gun factions. They are no longer listening to or trying to understand each other. Because of this, even the ever-increasing number of school shootings don’t have the power to change things significantly.

It isn’t enough that there have already been more than 11 mass murders and 230 mass shootings in this country this year, and that these incidents are climbing rapidly. There has been no substantial progress at the national level, even though in 2020 firearm-related homicides went up 35%. Deaths hit a new high of 45,000, and guns became, for the first time, the leading cause of death in children of 19 years or younger.

The deaths keep climbing even as our families and communities also bear the incalculable burdens of fear, anxiety and disruption caused by the tragedies around us.

Nothing will substantially change until we break the stalemate and realize we can have gun rights and gun safety. We first need to do the research to prove which policies best achieve both.

Back in 1983, my colleagues and I started looking at violence as a public health problem. We helped to set up what in 1992 became the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

We knew that one of the biggest causes of injury and deaths was car crashes, and Congress had been dedicating $200 million a year to research that problem since 1970. It had worked. They used research to redesign cars and roads -- and get drunk drivers out from behind the wheel. This research led to 600,000 lives saved over 50 years.

At CDC, we wanted to do the same thing for gun violence, so we set aside a few million dollars from our budget to look into it. The researchers did some great work: one study back in 1993 showed that having a gun in the home increased the risk of gun homicides three-fold, and gun suicides five-fold.

That got the NRA’s attention. In 1996, Congressman Jay Dickey got passed a resolution that took aim at our research funding. In strict terms all it said was that the CDC couldn’t advocate or promote gun control.

But it was interpreted more broadly: People saw it as a way of harassing researchers and quashing any research into gun violence. That’s the way the Dickey Amendment was used for 20 years.

Over that same time period, more than 600,000 people in the U.S. died from firearms.

I was fired from the CDC in 1999 in the wake of NRA attacks and the Dickey Amendment. It’s fair to say that when Jay and I first met, we were archenemies.

But over time, that changed. We started talking, first about our kids and our families. We grew to trust, like and even love each other. Jay came to regret how his Amendment had been used and worked with me to help promote gun violence research. It broke my heart when he died in 2017; 500 people came to his memorial, including the governor of Arkansas and the state’s complete congressional delegation. His family asked me to give the eulogy.

Jay’s former wife Betty (a former chief justice of the Arkansas State Supreme Court) and I have worked together to get Congressional funding reinstated. In 2018, a provision in a spending bill clarified that the CDC could in fact do this kind of research. In 2019, $25 million was appropriated to the CDC and National Institutes of Health for this work. This is an excellent start. But it’s not an adequate funding stream, it’s a mere trickle. If we want science to find those policies that will both protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners and reduce gun violence, we’ve got to start looking like we mean it.

Dr. Mark Rosenberg is a physician-scientist trained in infectious diseases, psychiatry and public health. He served as founding director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and also served as an assistant surgeon general.

This piece was produced by Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor published by Annual Reviews. Sign up for their weekly newsletter for more evidence-based stories on science.

Deeper-dive research

From the Annual Review of Public Health

“Considerations for Developing an Agenda for Gun Violence Prevention Research,” published April 2021.

Dr. Mark Rosenberg outlines a research agenda to guide the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, covering the scope of the problem of gun violence, its causes, effective preventative measures and best implementation. The full report can be found online at: https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-012420-105117

Editor’s note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will provide more details contained in the report on Monday’s Solutions page and on AJC.com/opinion.