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National Firearms Injury Surveillance System

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Anti-Gun Researchers Grabbing For Guns--and Uncle Sam`s Pocketbook--Again

One of the current primary goals of anti-gun public health professionals is the establishment of a federally-funded national firearms injury surveillance system. They claim that its purpose would be to enable researchers--them--to study the firearms issue (receiving lucrative grants of public moneys to do so), to determine the nature and extent of gun-related violence in America and thereafter craft "scientific" efforts to curb it. During the Clinton Administration, Congress curbed the practice of paying anti-gun researchers to conduct "studies" used for anti-gun propaganda purposes. However, the researchers hope that where there is a will (to promote "gun control" and be paid for it), there is a way, and that an injury surveillance system is it.

While anti-gun researchers assert that they would conduct studies objectively, their past activities suggest otherwise. Those most fervently calling for data collection now previously have advocated gun prohibition. Among them, several prominent New York doctors provided an eight-point program to the Journal of the American Medical Association, including a call for a firearm injury surveillance system, following an admission that the ultimate goal was a ban on the private possession of handguns. Similarly, the HELP (Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan) Network, now leading the charge for an injury surveillance system, previously stated that its goal is to change "society`s attitude toward guns so that it becomes socially unacceptable for private citizens to have handguns." And surveillance advocates at the Medical College of Wisconsin called for a ban on "Black Talon" ammunition, alleging various threats to the medical community, without having first collected any data as to whether the threats were real, or whether greater threats to doctors and nurses came from cutting and stabbing instruments kept in surgical rooms than from the century-old problem of pointed parts of bullets. Additional reasons to oppose a federally-funded injury surveillance system include:

  • Data collection, even if objectively conducted, would inevitably have biased results. The data that would be collected by the system would relate only to misuses of firearms (murders, suicides, and accidents). Data on protective and other beneficial uses of guns would not be recorded by an injury surveillance system since, obviously, there is no injury to record in the vast majority of self-defense uses of firearms and in all properly conducted sporting firearms uses. Additionally, data would be collected only on injuries involving guns, ignoring those involving knives, clubs, fists and feet, and other non-firearm objects.

When data using the Wisconsin surveillance system were reported to a multidisciplinary group studying homicide, Roland Chilton, president of the American Society of Criminology, said that focusing on just firearms, rather than other weapons, looked more like rhetoric than science. In order to evaluate the real threat to the medical community from the Black Talon round, for example--the fear being that cuts from the bullet being extracted from persons shot with the round might expose doctors and nurses to such blood-borne pathogens as HIV--data would have to be collected on all methods by which that community accidentally cuts itself exposing members to blood-borne pathogens of at-risk patients.

In sum, the policy debate about gun control really calls for a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the good which flows from the ownership and use of firearms against the bad. Surveillance system advocates are not interested in such an approach, since firearms are used for self-defense far more often than to commit crimes, widespread ownership and carrying of firearms deters violent criminals, and persons who use firearms to defend against crime are statistically less likely to be injured by criminals than persons who use another, or no, means of self-defense.

  • The data collection envisioned is impractical and expensive. When the medical community have attempted to record data on the types of guns and ammunition involved in injuries, they have failed to do so accurately. To the extent that the data collection system envisioned involves input from law enforcement agencies, crime labs, emergency-room personnel, social workers, and other groups, it could become quite costly, with no clear benefit.
  • Data collected would be used for political rhetoric more than for scientific analysis. Prominent anti-gun public health researcher Arthur Kellermann explained to sympathetic colleagues that the benefit of national firearm-related morbidity and mortality surveillance system was that gun-control advocates could lobby each congressman to support pending anti-gun legislation by telling him precisely how much gun injury occurred in his district annually. Certainly, all public health advocates of restrictive gun laws--and all anti-gun groups--have made similar but less detailed use of gun-related mortality data already collected.
  • Data collection advocates are interested in data only to the extent that it can be used to argue for "gun control." Data collection has indicated that the federal "assault weapon" ban was unjustified and not working, that gun-surrender programs don`t work, and that one-gun-a-month restrictions are not warranted, yet data collection advocates have been silent in the public debate of those issues.
  • Surveillance system proponents envision taxing gun buyers to pay for collecting data. The most prominent call for such a system advocated taxing guns to pay for it, simultaneously fulfilling gun-prohibitionists` goal of making guns more expensive. Curiously, the alleged model for firearms surveillance, the FARS (Fatality Analysis Reporting System) for motor vehicle accidents, is not paid for by taxing cars, nor is it clear that it is beneficial. Public health professionals pretend that the decline in motor vehicle accidents is related to data collection and analysis, but the gun-related fatal accident rate has fallen considerably faster than the motor-vehicle accident rate, and the decline in car accidents is more closely tied to the decline in the availability of cheap gas, and speed limit policies, than to anything related to public-health research.

1 One of those physicians has gone on to lead in the establishment of Doctors Against Handgun Injury, calling, of course, for a national firearm injury surveillance system.

2 Two examples demonstrate the HELP Network`s interest in objective data collection and analysis. It refused to allow the pro-gun head of Doctors for Integrity in Policy Research to attend their annual meeting. And in response to an open letter from the head of the group, the HELP Network`s founder and leader, K.K. Christoffel e-mailed colleagues (7/16/97, 11:23:52 EDT): "Does this group have a web page; if so, does it list members? Might VPC (the handgun-ban advocacy group, Violence Policy Center) dig up some dirt on it?"

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