A week after the gun massacre in Newtown, Conn., the National Rifle Association is speaking out. As well it should. If only the NRA believed in the right to free speech as fervently as it believes in the right to bear arms.
Faced with government-funded research that contradicts NRA claims on gun safety, the gun lobby moved to defund the research and silence the researchers. When news reporters tried to learn which gun shops repeatedly supply violent criminals with firearms, the NRA lobbied to have gun-trace data exempted from the Freedom of Information Act. When advocates of transparency in campaign finance proposed the Disclose Act in Congress to require disclosure of top donors to political advertising campaigns, the NRA once again marched to the beat of its own 100-round drum: The organization obtained an exemption to keep its information secret.
The list goes on. The NRA-backed Tiahrt Amendment requires the Justice Department to destroy records after gun-purchase background checks, making it harder to identify and catch straw buyers who work for criminals. As part of its war on information, the gun lobby has blocked efforts to put sales records into an integrated database, making the data more difficult for law enforcement officers to retrieve and organize, and complicating efforts to analyze gun trafficking patterns. After visiting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' National Tracing Center in West Virginia, which is the nation's sole facility tracing guns used in crimes, Washington Post reporter James Grimaldi described the place as "something like out of the movie 'Brazil,' where you could literally see boxes and boxes of documents that pile up."
You might think, as we do, that the gun lobby's aversion to information, and its success in securing congressional support for secrecy, poses a threat to public health and law enforcement (not to mention democracy). There is surely a case to be made to that effect. Yet it's harder to document that argument thanks to the successful suppression of information.
That, of course, is the point. In a study published in 1993 in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that the presence of a gun in a home significantly increased the risks of homicide and suicide. (A finding seemingly borne out in the case of Nancy Lanza, the mother of the Newtown killer, who was murdered with her own gun.) The study was compelling, thought-provoking and attention-grabbing. Was it conclusive? Hardly. But rather than trust in scientific principle and a free marketplace of ideas to sort through the data, the gun lobby mobilized to snuff out such research altogether.
The effort was remarkably successful. In 1996, Republican Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas pushed an amendment cutting $2.6 million from the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The import of the amendment was lost on no one. The CDC had spent $2.6 million on gun research the year before. Thereafter, the CDC was expressly prohibited from using funds to "advocate or promote gun control." A subsequent effort, by Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana, applied similar restrictions to the National Institutes of Health.
These are the results of the gun lobby's storied political muscle. They are not, however, the actions of a political movement confident that history, data or reason itself can support its agenda. Truth doesn't fear information.
The Newtown massacre may mark a turning point in America's tragic gun politics. Yet even under the most optimistic scenario, the quest for reasonable gun laws will be a lengthy, difficult battle. It's best if all sides are well-armed with facts.