Pulling the trigger: announcing a project to look at gun policies nationwide

If the federal government can’t treat gun violence as a public health problem, then we will

Written by Caroline Curtis
Edited by Beryl Lipton

In 2015 alone, the United States bore over 50,000 incidents of gun violence and over 13,000 gun-related deaths, more than half of which were suicides. Statistically, mass shootings are growing in both frequency and fatalities, and at this point, there are far more guns than people in this country.

Image via Mother Jones

At a time when the omnipresent threat of terrorism is grounds for granular attempts at control, the conversation around gun violence as a matter of public health remains remarkably stagnant, with the most accurate data available cobbled together by media outlets and reddit. Where are the government’s reports on this?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading organization for the consideration of our public’s health, has long been mum on the issue, even as firearms homicides, by their own count, remain among the leading causes of death for every age group over 1 year.

In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, the American Medical Association has resolved to consider gun violence a public issue, but the CDC remains stifled by an amendment worked into the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act in 1996.

The National Rifle Association is recognizably one of the strongest lobbying forces in the United States, and this amendment was actually one of their failures - what they’d initially hoped for was the end of the CDC’s National Center of Injury Prevention, the division that had released a study in 1993 linking guns in the home to increased risk for homicide. While the CDC wasn’t explicitly forbidden from researching gun violence, the language of the law has encouraged a wide berth around it, leaving lawmakers and citizens with many questions and without many sources to help predict which laws will be effective.

For years, everyone from relatives of gun violence victims to former Republican Representative Jay Dickey, responsible for introducing the Amendment, have been calling for its repeal. In 2012, in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook, President Obama issued an executive order for the CDC to study the causes of gun violence in response to the shooting, only a week after 100 University of Chicago doctors sent a letter to VP Joe Biden asking for the ban to be lifted. The near-ban superseded the President.

Supporters of the amendment provide various arguments as to why gun violence does not qualify as a public health issue. House Speaker John Boehner said, “A gun is not a disease. Guns don’t kill people. People do.” Some say treating it as public health problem diminishes the gravity of the crime. Others believe classifying gun violence as a public health issue distracts us from real health threats. Ever-present is the fear that gun-violence-as-public-health issue is a one-way street to a government-led raid on firearms.

But as the number of casualties grows, it’s becoming more clear that a better understanding of the threat we’re up against is crucial for law enforcement, the medical community, policymakers, and the American people. Even something as abstract as “violence” is considered a public health concern by the CDC.

For all the talk of the NRA’s control over gun policy, what do we know about that policy and the steps that communities and states can take to direct it. This project is part of MuckRock’s contribution to understanding how we consider gun use now.

To do this, we’re taking a long look at gun policies and information at all levels of government - local to federal - including data, if available, on issuance and revocation for firearms licenses and permits, incidents involving use of a firearm, and on the sale and purchase of firearms.

It’s a mission not without roadblocks, some with requesting records itself - redirected to other agencies, individual state FOIA laws applying only to state residents, agencies having no responsive documents, and backlogs of FOIA requests, resulting in a long wait for documents - and some with the lack of information available.

In the battle to understand the role guns play in our society, we’ll need help and you can give it. Contact us at info@muckrock to give us tips and suggestions, sign up for our newsletter, donate to MuckRock (now tax deductible!), or just join the conversation.

If so many people are at risk of gun violence, we can’t wait for the political conversation to turn and ask: why?


Image via Flickr and is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0