President Barack Obama is set to unveil proposals from his task force on reducing gun violence today. Among the recommendations is lifting restrictions on federally funded research on gun violence. Congress, over the past two decades, has restricted federal funds from being used to “promote or advocate gun control,” which many researchers say has had a chilling effect on studies related to gun violence. Even the new health care law includes a provision preventing doctors from asking patients about guns in the home. We explore the issues.


  • Michael Halpern Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists


  • 13:06:45

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, food processing and packaging revolutionized how we eat and change our tastes. But first, President Obama this morning announced the recommendations of his panel on gun violence.

  • 13:07:16

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe headlines and debate will likely focus on the gun control measures including criminal background checks for all gun sales and reinstating an assault weapons ban but there's also call to lift restriction on federally funded research into gun violence. What restrictions you might ask? There is, for example, a law prohibiting the National Institutes of Health from spending to advocate or promote gun control.

  • 13:07:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe idea being that taxpayer dollars should not go to advocate a partisan issue, particularly on an issue that is so controversial. But a number of scientists and researchers say these restrictions create a chilling effect and important research is not being done. Joining us to discuss this is Michael Halpern. He is with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Michael Halpern, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:10

    MR. MICHAEL HALPERNGreat to be with you, Kojo.

  • 13:08:12

    MR. MICHAEL HALPERNThe president spoke this morning, announcing the recommendations of his task force. Let's take a listen to a little bit of that briefing.

  • 13:08:24

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAFirst, it's time for Congress to require a universal background check for anyone trying to buy a gun. The law already requires licensed gun dealers to run background checks and over the last 14 years that's kept 1.5 million of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun. But it's hard to enforce that law when as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.

  • 13:08:51

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAThat's not safe, it's not smart, it's not fair to responsible gun buyers or sellers. Second, Congress should restore a ban on military style assault weapons and a ten round limit for magazines. Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater. A majority of Americans agree with us on this. And by the way, so did Ronald Regan, one of the staunchest defenders of the Second Amendment, who wrote to Congress in 1994 urging them, this is Ronald Regan speaking, urging them to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacturer of military style assault weapons.

  • 13:09:47

    NNAMDIPresident Obama this morning on his proposals for gun control. You can join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. What do you think of the president's recommendations for addressing gun violence? Michael Halpern, what do you think? How would you characterize these recommendations? Bold, middle of the road or weak tea?

  • 13:10:06

    HALPERNWell, in the White House announcement on removing the restrictions on research is a very good first step. You know, it's important for the executive branch leadership to tell researchers at CDC, NIH and elsewhere in the government that their work is valued. And we see this as part of a trend that we've seen from President Obama.

  • 13:10:26

    HALPERNDuring his first term he developed a number of scientific integrity protections for scientists at fellow agencies and Congress, in the last Congress passed a law that protects scientists and other government employees who report political interference in their research. So we seen Congress, we've seen the president moving in the right direction but there must be a congressional action too, we're in it for the long haul here and we need to hear both Congress and the White House expressing support for gun violence research.

  • 13:10:58

    NNAMDIGoing to get to that in a second but for those people who are saying, what restrictions on research? Well, while restrictions on research have not been making headlines the president did mention them specifically in his press conference today. Let's listen to what he said about that.

  • 13:11:13

    OBAMAWhile year after year those who oppose even modest gun safety measures have threatened to defund scientific or medical research into the causes of gun violence. I will direct the Centers for Disease Control to go ahead and study the best ways to reduce it and Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds. We don't benefit from ignorance. We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.

  • 13:11:43

    NNAMDIMichael Halpern, freezing gun violence research and the president wants to end the freeze on gun violence, is the area that you focus on. Can you talk a little about the restrictions on research and how they affect what studies are actually done?

  • 13:11:59

    HALPERNYes, and this dates back to about 20 years, so the '80s and '90s when there was a very robust body of research that was coming out about gun violence. Not just about gun control but about all sorts of issues surrounding preventing gun violence. And some people found that research threatening, you know, one study in particular by a researcher named Art Kellermann in 1993 found that having a gun in the home makes homicide in the home more likely.

  • 13:12:24

    HALPERNThere were, at the National Rifle Association talked to Congress about their, and a representative named Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican put in language into a funding bill that still exists today that no research could be done that "advocates or promotes gun control." Well, that's pretty vague language and scientists have gotten nowhere near doing any research at CDC related to gun violence and research is pretty much dried up at the agency.

  • 13:12:57

    HALPERNA couple of years ago there was a second study that came out showing that carrying a firearm increases your risk of being during an assault. That study was done by researchers at the National Institutes of Health. In response, the language that was put on the CDC was extended throughout the Department of Health and Senior Services to cover NIH as well.

  • 13:13:19

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number. Do you think that taxpayer dollars should be used to fund research into gun violence or not? 800-433-8850, there's even a provision related to this kind of research in President Obama's healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act. What does that say, Michael Halpern?

  • 13:13:42

    HALPERNSo the Affordable Care Act contained a provision that was put in by, and actually championed by Harry Reid. You know, it's important to note that it's Democrats and Republicans who do attempt to restrict this sort of sharing of scientific information that restricted the ability of doctors to ask their patients about guns in their homes.

  • 13:14:02

    HALPERNNow, it's important for doctors to be able to have frank conversations with their patients about things that could be risk factors and harm their health. Everything from lead paint to the presence of guns in their homes and so it's important for doctors to have these serious conversations with their patients and Congress in the Affordable Care Act tried, was successful in interfering in those conversations.

  • 13:14:26

    NNAMDISpeaking of healthcare, let's go to Alex in Washington D.C. Alex, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

  • 13:14:32

    ALEXHi, Kojo, the point I'd like to make is that we're trying to deal specific problems by imposing systemic solutions. We've got, it's like taking a cut on your finger and giving somebody massive doses of chemotherapy. It hasn't worked, it's not going to work. This focus on the size of magazine is, I think, ridiculous

  • 13:15:03

    ALEXI am a veteran, I know I can take a single shot 22 rifle into a school and I can probably hit 20 to 30 targets in a couple of minutes. You don't need a large magazine to do substantial damage. So we're focusing on the wrong thing. we're looking at the symptom and ignoring the problem. The problem isn't gun violence, the problem is violence. We have a lot of very, very emotionally stressed out people in this country and that's the problem. How they act out is what we're looking at.

  • 13:15:40

    NNAMDIWell, apparently, Alex, one of the things that the president will be demanding is that we ensure that health insurance plans cover mental health benefits and I guess he and his supporters will say, well, can we walk and chew gum at the same time? can we look at both things?

  • 13:15:57

    ALEXWell, you know, if we're dealing with symptoms we're never going to solve the problems. The problem is much more fundamental with the psyche of the American public. That's where we...

  • 13:16:06

    NNAMDISo is it fair to assume that you agree with the insuring health insurance plans cover mental health benefits but not any of the specific gun control measures?

  • 13:16:16

    ALEXThat is fairly correct and I'm not sure what all the gun control measures he's got. Obviously there has to be some restriction on firearms, the people who are deemed mentally unstable. We're not going to give firearms to people like that. the laws already exist to do all this, it's just not enforced. It's kind of like immigration, the laws have been there but nobody's enforced them.

  • 13:16:38

    NNAMDIOkay, thank you very much for your call, Alex. Michael Halpern, many see this as simply being about gun control but you point out that gun violence prevention is about much more than that. can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:16:50

    HALPERNYou know, there all types of questions that scientists can ask and engineers as well. are there cost effective ways to engineer guns to be smarter so that they're only used by a registered owner. You know, how can government agencies best share data to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and, as the caller mentioned, how can the mental health system be structured to identify high risk individuals and to keep guns out of their hands.

  • 13:17:15

    HALPERNSo, you know, these questions are far greater than what we've heard thus far and sometimes research identifies policy options and puts new ideas on the table that haven't been thought of yet and so that's why it's important for both Congress and the White House to embrace gun violence research.

  • 13:17:34

    HALPERNEarlier this week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg was speaking at a gun policy summit at Johns Hopkins University and he talked about how there's $21 million that's spent on headache research each year at NIH and less than $1 million on gun violence prevention research. So clearly we need to make more of an investment in this area and removing the restrictions is one way to get there.

  • 13:18:03

    NNAMDIWell, the research restrictions began in the 1990s when the NRA urged Congress to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and preventions division that studied gun violence. But these restrictions don't apply to research that is not funded by the federal government, universities, private organizations, for example. so aren't there other avenues to do this kind of research?

  • 13:18:27

    HALPERNThere certainly is a good deal of research that does continue. Some of that was presented at this research conference this week at Johns Hopkins. You know, they figured out, for example, the safety system is broken, that agencies aren't sharing enough information, that states are not reporting mental health records and that the mentally ill people are continuing to buy guns. But it's important for federal research to occur as well. the different organizations can fund research that have different agendas and ask questions in a way that might buy us the results.

  • 13:18:59

    HALPERNFederally funded research you end up with better peer review a lot of the time and you can't hold back research results that are less, that don't support a certain point of view. So it is important for us to have a common base of information that we make decisions from so that people on the left aren't running to the Brady campaign and people on the right aren't running to the National Rifle Association for their information.

  • 13:19:26

    NNAMDISome might say that if we don't have enough research right now, in part, because of such restrictions then how can we be making intelligent policy or informed policy decisions?

  • 13:19:37

    HALPERNWell, you know, the need for more research shouldn't stop a policy debate. You know, we make decisions with incomplete information all the time on prescription drugs and food safety at the federal level to local decision makers making decisions about why their fracking should be allowed and on what basis and with what controls and so we need to make policy, we need to move forward with information we have, evaluate those policies with future research so that we can see how well those policies are working and continue to refine them in the future. But it's not a reason to do nothing.

  • 13:20:13

    NNAMDIHere is Patricia in Washington, D.C. Patricia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:20:18

    PATRICIAThanks for taking my call, Kojo. I was calling because I was calling in response to a former caller about how restrictions and regulations will not affect gun ownership. And I think that's completely false. The more hoops you have to jump through to have your gun the fewer people will have guns. And one of the biggest problems we have in this country is the sheer number of guns on the street. There -- with a lot of these mass shooters there were no signs that they had mental health issues before. That's not going to be enough to catch them.

  • 13:20:49

    PATRICIAWe have to decrease the number of guns on the street and there are very effective ways to do that. I grew up in a house with guns. I was in law enforcement as a prosecutor for years. I owned a lot of guns when I lived in Colorado. When I moved to the east coast where the laws were much more restrictive I just didn't want to bother with jumping through the legal hoops to have those guns and I left them behind. And I think with more restrictions and the more you have to register and reregister your gun, the fewer guns will be on our streets and the fewer gun deaths we will see.

  • 13:21:19

    NNAMDIOkay, Patricia. Thank you very much for your call. Have time for one more call and this is from Gil in Rockville, Md. Gil, your turn.

  • 13:21:29

    GILHi. We have an example already in Australia of how they handled mass killings. In the mid '90s there was a mass killing in Tasmania and the Australians instituted assault weapon restrictions banning and restricted the amount of ammunition to be held in a magazine. Before this happened they had one mass killing a year. Afterwards they've had none. And it was coupled with a buyback of assault weapons.

  • 13:22:00

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Gil. When you hear stuff like this, Michael Halpern, flurry of proposals, recommendations, legislation, do you think we're seeing a fundamental shift in our attitudes toward guns and gun control?

  • 13:22:14

    HALPERNWell, I certainly think that people are more open to different ideas at this point. You know, we've had entrenched beliefs on both sides on this issue. And it clearly hasn't helped stem the tide of both these mass killings and also the gun violence that we see in the streets of America every day. And so particularly on the research issue we've seen a growing chorus for fixing the congressional mistake that was made. Jay Dickey, the Republic from Arkansas who put forth the CDC restrictions in the first place in the mid '90s has come out and said he made a mistake and called for the repeal of the restrictions.

  • 13:22:54

    HALPERNMike Bloomberg talked about it this week and Mike Thompson who's the representative who has been heading Nancy Pelosi's gun violence task force is also in support of lifting the restrictions. So we'll just have to see how far Congress is willing to go. But I do think we're in a different place and that people are asking, you know, lots of questions. We've heard them so far in this show about, you know, whether or not, you know, what kind of, you know, if there should be limits to the types of guns that can be purchased or the number of guns that can be purchased, what kind of mental health services are necessary.

  • 13:23:27

    HALPERNThese and a lot of policy questions can't be answered without really good scientific information. And we need to get it out there.

  • 13:23:36

    NNAMDIMichael Halpern is with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Michael Halpern, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:23:42

    HALPERNIt's been a pleasure.

  • 13:23:43

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, food processing and packaging and how they revolutionized. How we eat and changed our tastes. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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