Center for Disease Control (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky gave an interview on Friday promising the agency would go “pedal to the metal” with gun-violence research. But the agency’s approach needs to avoid crashing into past ditches if it hopes to do more than just sow distrust.
The disheartening rise in murders inside some of the country’s largest cities demands action. Dispassionate research into the root causes of gun violence could produce useful insights for lawmakers looking to blunt the homicide spike. And that’s what Walensky is promising to do.
“I’m here about preventing gun violence and gun death,” she told CNN.
Walensky promised to work with gun owners in the new CDC initiative. She said the goal was to prevent gun violence, not gun ownership.
“We cannot understand the research of firearm violence, firearm injury, without embracing wholeheartedly, the firearm owning community,” she said. “I really do believe that the population of people who wants to own a gun doesn’t want people hurt by them. The majority of the population does not want people hurt by them. I want them at the table.”
But gun owners and gun-rights activists have good reason to be skeptical of the rebirth of CDC research on guns. While major media outlets generally ignore it, there is a legitimate reason why Congress placed strings on gun research in the first place.
In 1994, Dr. Mark Rosenberg was director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. He was also explicitly anti-gun. He openly advocated for using a public health approach to gun violence that ends with literal bans.
“We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes,” he told The New York Times. “It used to be that smoking was a glamour symbol, cool, sexy, macho. Now it is dirty, deadly, and banned.”
Naturally, this sowed a lot of distrust of the CDC among gun owners. Public Health Officials are not supposed to be political activists, and overtly advocating for a certain political outcome when you’re engaging in a scientific study does a lot to discredit your work. It also damages the trust a government institution relies on to influence the public.
That’s why Congress banned the use of CDC funds to promote gun control. The ban didn’t extend to all research on guns and, despite Walensky’s claims, federally-funded gun studies have happened in recent years. Though, certainly, the ban did drastically reduce the number of federally-funded gun studies.
Of course, academic study of gun violence didn’t cease by any means. A great deal of gun research has continued to happen without federal funding.
And it is odd to watch the CDC director begin speaking out about the agency focusing on gun violence, which is not a disease to be controlled no matter what language games some might like to play, in the middle of an actual pandemic. Yes, murder has spiked in some cities, and that deserves study. But it’s difficult to imagine how Walensky found time for this interview or why she’s prioritizing the inevitably-controversial study of guns while the Covid delta variant ravages large swaths of the country, causing hospital bed shortages.
The CDC is already facing a credibility problem among significant portions of the population. That’s at least partially due to their own communications missteps made throughout the pandemic. And repeating the mistakes of the 90s by delving into politically-motivated action on guns will only further erode their credibility.
The fact that Walensky’s promise for immediate action on gun research comes at the same time gun-control activists have been publicly clamoring for President Joe Biden (D.) to take more action on guns isn’t a great start. After all, the ban on funding for research that promotes gun control was lifted back in 2018. And murder began to surge last year.
In fact, the CDC had already initiated gun-violence research projects before Walensky’s interview. So, the timing of her forceful commitment that “something has to be done” about guns is a bit odd.
But the studies themselves are what matters more than the director’s rhetoric or promises. Looking through the ones the CDC has already funded, they’re mostly focused on violence interruption or looking at the effects of being exposed to violence. There is one that could stir up controversy depending on how it actually plays out, though.
The agency has given $349,829 to a researcher at the Rand Corporation who is trying to estimate the gun ownership rates in small areas and then conduct “innovative and more sensitive and precise evaluations of the effects of policies designed to improve firearm safety.” You could read the summary of the proposal a few different ways, given that “policies designed to improve firearm safety” could mean something very different depending on which side of the gun divide you’re on.
For most gun owners, a policy “designed to improve firearms safety” sounds like a gun safety rule, such as always keeping your gun pointed in a safe direction. But for gun-control activists, who now prefer the label “gun safety” activists, it usually means government policies designed to restrict the ownership or use of firearms.
The summary reads like the latter to me as differing gun laws are the only kind of “policies designed to improve firearms safety” it would make sense to study in this context, given gun safety rules are universal and gun laws are not. If that’s the case, it’s likely to produce some very controversial results one way or the other. And, if the CDC doubles back down on funding studies gun owners believe are designed to target them and their rights, the funding debate will make a come back very soon.
“I’m not here about gun control,” Walensky said on Friday.
She’ll need to make sure the agency treads lightly for anyone to believe her.