Twenty-seven people died In the Sutherland Springs massacre last Sunday (including the shooter by suicide) from the shots fired by a Ruger AR-556, a semi-automatic rifle that costs $700. The worst mass shooting in the history of Texas has reopened the debate on gun sales, by now staid and ceremonial, with very little hope for any change.
Trump himself shut down the debate by pushing the notion that the mental problems of the killer, Devin Kelley, were at the root of the tragedy, and not the four firearms he was free to buy despite having a criminal record. A small controversy arose on the role of anti-depressant medication (which Kelley was not even using), which forced the president of the American Psychological Association to clarify that there is no scientific evidence of a link between these drugs and mass shootings. If the debate is merely running around in circles, this is also because of the heavy censorship that for 20 years has been weighing down the U.S. scientific community.
It may seem paradoxical that, after so many mass shootings, the experts are discussing pills instead of guns. But in the U.S., the cultural influence of the gun lobby is even stronger than its economic influence. In truth, the $3 million spent annually by the National Rifle Association (the lobby that defends the right of Americans to acquire a gun) to bring members of the U.S. Congress to their side may sound like a lot, but in the context of U.S. lobbying it’s not much at all. The Realtors’ association, for example, spends 15 times as much.
The influence of the firearms industry is impossible to defeat at the ideological level. It is no coincidence that its biggest political success is the so-called “Dickey amendment,” an article present in every budget law since 1996, which prevents experts from carrying out publicly funded research on the social cost of the sale of guns. This gag order on researchers has meant that, over the past 20 years, mass shootings have been happening at the rate of a civil war while analyses that would seriously investigate their causes and provide useful recommendations for policy are lacking. Indeed, United States — where one can find almost half of all the privately owned guns in the world, with an unparalleled crime rate and with different laws in each state — would be an ideal subject for research.
In 1996, Jay Dickey was an obscure Republican congressman from Arkansas, and, by his own account, the main supporter of the NRA in Congress. During the parliamentary debate on the Omnibus Spending Bill, he managed to tuck into the law a cut of $2.6 million to the funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This was exactly the amount that the Centers had dedicated in the previous year to research about the health impact of the sale of privately owned firearms in the United States. To be clear, the amendment stipulated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” (Among the “Yes” votes was also that of Bernie Sanders, as the issue split the American Left.)
It was a great day for Dickey, who also managed to pass a ban against the destruction of embryos for purposes of publicly funded research, requested by the anti-abortion lobby. The amendment came at the end of a campaign that the NRA began in 1993 against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC was held guilty of having financed a thorough study by the epidemiologist Arthur Kellermann, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, and which was explicitly mentioned in the congressional debate.
According to the study, which analyzed the causes of the 24,000 deaths per year in the U.S. caused by firearms, the presence of a gun in the home triples the risk of being killed. This conclusion put the lie to the rhetoric in favor of the free circulation of rifles and handguns, according to which an armed citizen would be safe from criminals. This resulted in a campaign by the gun lobby aimed at closing down the CDC. It had to settle in the end for a cut in funding. However, its underlying aim was achieved.
In effect, the vagueness of the Dickey amendment did not clarify what type of research would be permitted, leaving scientists in a gray area that put research projects and careers at risk. The scientific community was “terrorized” by the NRA, in the words of the then-director of the CDC, Mark Rosenberg. The researchers were forced to report a preview of the results of their research concerning firearms to the NRA, and many scientists decided to pursue other subjects instead. Research on the impact of guns would decline greatly over the years, relying almost exclusively on funding from private organizations. In the financial statements of the CDC, the budget for research on guns dropped by 96 percent, to just $100,000 per year. As Democratic Congressman Steve Israel noted in The New York Times, this is a quarter of the funds allocated by the government for studying the effects of Swedish massage on rabbits (whatever that is).
Of course, the public debate on guns continued but always remained at the level of political struggle between opposing factions and lacking in objective evidence. For the next two decades, the U.S. scientific associations would repeatedly ask to remove the ban on research about firearms. In the aftermath of each tragedy, the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association in particular regularly revived the issue, as they did also after the shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs.
But politics, under the influence of the gun lobby, always fired back (metaphorically speaking). In 2009, for example, the National Institute of Health, a public research center different from that involved in the 1993 research, studied the link between gun ownership and the risk of aggression, reaching similar conclusions as Kellermann had.
In reaction to that, in 2011 Congress extended the ban to all U.S. health research agencies. The Obama administration was also unable to expunge the Dickey amendment from the budget laws, defeated by the Republican congressional majority. And the Trump years ahead don’t leave much room to expect change.
After his congressional career, Dickey began a career as a lobbyist at the head of his own consulting company. As mass shooting followed mass shooting, his support for pro-gun groups waned. In 2012, after the Aurora massacre, where 24-year-old James Holmes killed 12 people in a movie theater, Dickey signed a petition in The Washington Post against his own amendment, alongside his one-time enemy, former director of the CDC Rosenberg. But the Dickey amendment went on to survive its author, who died this April at the age of 77.
The topic of research censorship, which we wrote about in il manifesto a week ago about China, also involves democratic countries like the United States. It’s been going on for decades on subjects such as tobacco or firearms, and now it’s threatening to spread to global issues that seem impossible to sweep under the rug, such as climate change.
According to a report in The New York Times, between 1966 and 2012 in the U.S. there were 90 shootings with at least four victims. But out of the five that had the most victims in U.S. history, four were since 2012.
Even if other causes for this phenomenon are also acknowledged, such as mental illness or the influence of video games, in truth it is the number of guns in circulation that seems to be the best explanation by far. In the U.S., there are 270 million privately owned guns, 42 percent of the world total. No other country has a comparable number of firearms in circulation, or crime rates that are similarly high.
What’s more, the number of firearms is growing rapidly, doubling between 2010 and 2013. On the flip side, the number of families possessing a firearm is steadily declining, from 50 percent in the 1970s to 31 percent today. As a result, there are fewer armed persons overall — but they are, statistically speaking, much more dangerous than they were before.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Your weekly briefing of progressive news.