The CDC’s Framing of Homicide and Suicide As ‘Public Health’ Issues Provides Cover for Biden’s Gun Control Agenda
As director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Rochelle Walensky has a lot on her plate right now—perhaps too much, given her history of misrepresenting COVID-19 research, promoting dangerously mixed messages about vaccination, issuing confusing and scientifically dubious advice, and laying claim to vast powers that Congress never gave her. But Walensky’s pandemic-related duties did not deter her from publicly switching focus to a highly contentious subject that has always spelled trouble for the CDC: gun violence.
“Something has to be done about this,” Walensky told CNN last week. “Now is the time. It’s pedal-to-the-metal time.”
Although that metaphor suggests hasty action, Walensky emphasized that she is not calling for new gun controls. “I’m not here about gun control,” she said. “I’m here about preventing gun violence and gun death.”
In Walensky’s view, the CDC needs to investigate the causes of gun-related deaths so that public policy will have a stronger empirical basis. “I swore to the president and to this country that I would protect your health,” she said. “This is clearly one of those moments, one of those issues that is harming America’s health….We haven’t spent the time, energy, and, frankly, the resources to understand this problem because it’s been so divided.”
Walensky’s disavowal of restrictionist motives and her lip service to finding common ground with “the firearm-owning community” would be more reassuring if it weren’t for two facts. First, CDC-sponsored research in the past typically has served an anti-gun agenda that aims to reduce homicide and suicide by limiting access to firearms. Second, President Joe Biden has consistently used “public health” rhetoric to give his preexisting gun control ambitions a scientific patina.
Beginning in 1997, responding to complaints from the National Rifle Association (NRA), Congress prohibited the CDC from spending taxpayer money on gun violence research. That ban was lifted in 2018, and Walensky is taking advantage of the new leeway by funding studies aimed at “understanding the root causes of gun violence,” as CNN puts it.
CNN presents the NRA’s opposition to CDC research in this area as politically motivated interference with science. But as Don Kates and two other gun policy scholars noted in a 1997 Reason cover story, the studies funded by the CDC were controversial precisely because they seemed designed to promote a political cause.
“Contrary to [the] picture of dispassionate scientists under assault by the Neanderthal NRA and its know-nothing allies in Congress, serious scholars have been criticizing the CDC’s ‘public health’ approach to gun research for years,” noted Kates and company. They described some of that criticism:
In a presentation at the American Society of Criminology’s 1994 meeting, for example, University of Illinois sociologist David Bordua and epidemiologist David Cowan called the public health literature on guns “advocacy based on political beliefs rather than scientific fact.” Bordua and Cowan noted that The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, the main outlets for CDC-funded studies of firearms, are consistent supporters of strict gun control. They found that “reports with findings not supporting the position of the journal are rarely cited,” “little is cited from the criminological or sociological field,” and the articles that are cited “are almost always by medical or public health researchers.”
Further, Bordua and Cowan said, “assumptions are presented as fact: that there is a causal association between gun ownership and the risk of violence, that this association is consistent across all demographic categories, and that additional legislation will reduce the prevalence of firearms and consequently reduce the incidence of violence.” They concluded that “incestuous and selective literature citations may be acceptable for political tracts, but they introduce an artificial bias into scientific publications. Stating as fact associations which may be demonstrably false is not just unscientific, it is unprincipled.” In a 1994 presentation to the Western Economics Association, State University of New York at Buffalo criminologist Lawrence Southwick compared public health firearm studies to popular articles produced by the gun lobby: “Generally the level of analysis done on each side is of a low quality. The papers published in the medical literature (which are uniformly anti-gun) are particularly poor science.”
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