Stop those prying scientists!

After the events of recent months, one wonders whether anything can be done to reduce the likelihood of a Newton, Connecticut-type massacre recurring. This is not to shift the blame away from, or deny the ultimate responsibility of, the perpetrator of that incident; it is to ask whether there are steps that we as a society can take, within the limits of the Constitution that shapes our government, to reduce such occurrences.

The answer to this question is probably not simple (unless the answer is simply “No, there is nothing to be done.”). After a tragedy like Newton, the tendency is to just do something, and do it quickly. But to rush blindly  into a legislative attempt at a solution would undoubtedly be ineffective and entail lots of bad, unintended outcomes. No, it will probably take years of research (= lots o’ money) to even begin to come to any conclusions about effective steps that will do more than make us feel good about having done something.

Such research has been attempted in the past. Between 1985 and 1997, medical and public health researchers at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC were researching firearm safety; however, certain members of Congress attempted to eliminate the Center. They failed, but they did manage to get the following language into the appropriations bill: “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Justifiably worried about what might be construed as “advocating or promoting gun control,” researchers stopped looking into firearm safety. And after publication of research in 2009 examining whether carrying a gun increases or decreases the risk of firearm assault, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Congress applied the same restrictive language to all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, including the NIH, which funds a lot of the research in this country.

Now, maybe the gun lobby is right. Maybe the government shouldn’t be involved in trying to find an answer to this problem. Maybe government answers will be ineffective. (I personally think this is another place where the untapped potential of the Church’s transformative influence would do far more than legislation ever could.) But whatever actions are taken, they must be ethical actions. As I have written several times before in this space, “Good ethics begins with good facts.” But in this instance, we might have to move ahead without knowing what we’re doing, because some are so afraid of knowledge that they have blocked any attempts to discover it.

I have written before of agenda-driven, unwarranted interference in the physician-patient relationship. It seems to me this is a case of agenda-driven, unwarranted interference in public health research. Coincidentally, both involve the pro-gun lobby. I am not advocating for or against any type of gun control; I am advocating against blatant interference in much-needed research, driven apparently by a fear of what that research might show.



(See here for the original article in JAMA on which this post is based.)

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