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Let science help settle gun debate

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Between 1973 and 2012, the United States experienced 65 cases of rabies, while the National Institutes of Health offered 89 major research grants to tackle the subject. There were 266 polio cases during that time as well, and the NIH made 129 major polio research awards.

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Between 1973 and 2012, the United States experienced 4 million firearm injuries. The number of major NIH research studies into gun violence during that time?

Three.

Those numbers point to an action on gun violence that President Barack Obama has begun and Congress now should support in a bipartisan way.

Last month, Obama issued 23 executive orders on gun violence, one of which told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research the problem's causes and prevention.

The reason such an order even is necessary is that in the past, Congress had discouraged such research. Now, Congress should reverse that stance and join the president in encouraging useful studies.

Restricting research was a bad idea in the first place because it left advocates open to being called anti-science. So, changing course would be useful politically, especially for Republicans who are trying to win moderates and independents' support.

But politics isn't the only reason Congress needs an attitude adjustment.

The fact is that because the federal government has funded so little research, huge questions about gun violence remain unanswered. So, when the National Rifle Association calls for armed guards in every school, the question arises: Would that policy be wasteful or wise? And the answer is we don't know.

"We know virtually nothing about the relationship between guns and crime because that whole research agenda has been basically shut down for years," said John Roman, senior fellow with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, to The Atlantic magazine.

Would prohibiting people with mental illness from owning guns notably reduce gun violence? What effect has banning large-capacity magazines had in places where that's been tried? What effect does gun ownership have on suicides? And how many criminals are deterred by their targets owning or brandishing a gun?

These are just some of the questions that gun proposals inspire but that America does not have answers to. Supporters and opponents of gun control alike should have the courage of their convictions and be willing to test their claims.

Now, here's the key objection: The research is biased, gun control opponents say. That's why Congress restricted the funding in the first place: As a column in Forbes magazine put it last week, "virtually all of the CDC-funded firearms studies conducted since 1985 had reached conclusions favoring stricter gun control."

But the cure for bad science is not the cutting off of funds. (For gun control opponents, the cut-off amounted to a self-inflicted wound because it broadcast fear of their arguments not standing up to scrutiny.)

The cure for bad science is more science. Gun control opponents should accept the rigor of the scientific method - and the credibility it can give to their cause.

After all, it's one thing to make an assertion. It's another thing to prove it. And in the marketplace of public opinion, proof is like a roll of $1,000 bills. That's the kind of currency the gun-control debate needs.

Tom Dennis for the Grand Forks Herald

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