In the wake of the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., the familiar questions inevitably resurfaced: Are communities where more people carry guns safer or less safe? Does the availability of high-capacity magazines increase deaths? Do more rigorous background checks make a difference?
The reality is that even these and other basic questions cannot be fully answered, because not enough research has been done. And there is a reason for that: Scientists in the field and former officials with the government agency that used to finance the bulk of this research agree in saying that the influence of the National Rifle Association has all but choked off money for such work.
"We've been stopped from answering the basic questions," said Mark Rosenberg, former director of the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was for about a decade the leading source of financing for firearms research.
Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said his group had not tried to squelch genuine scientific inquiries, just politically slanted ones.
"Our concern is not with legitimate medical science," Cox said.
The dearth of money can be traced in large measure to a clash between public health scientists and the NRA in the mid-1990s. At the time, Rosenberg and others at the CDC were becoming increasingly assertive about the importance of studying gun-related injuries and deaths as a public health phenomenon.
Alarmed, the NRA and its allies on Capitol Hill fought back. The injury center was guilty of "putting out papers that were really political opinion masquerading as medical science," said Cox, who worked on this issue for the NRA.
In 1996, Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., succeeded in pushing through an amendment stripping $2.6 million from the CDC budget, the very amount it had spent on firearms-related research.
The Senate later restored the money but designated it for research on traumatic brain injury. Language was also inserted into the centers' appropriations bill that remains in place today: "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."
In the end, researchers said, even though it is murky what exactly is allowed under this provision and what is not, the upshot is clear inside the centers: The agency should tread in this area only at its own peril.