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Gun violence kills far more people in the U.S. than in any other developed nation. Our per-capita firearm homicide rate is 20 times that of other industrialized (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations. It's a heavy toll: Some 30,000 firearms-related homicides and suicides annually in the U.S.

There's little question that this killing is related to high gun ownership. Based on 30 years of national homicide data, for every 1 percent increase in a state's gun ownership rate, there is a nearly 1 percent increase in its firearm homicide rate. Thus, states such as Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, where only 15 percent of adults own guns, have about five gun deaths a year per 100,000 residents, while states such as Alaska, Arkansas, Mississippi, Wyoming, Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina, where 55 percent of adults own guns, have about 18 gun deaths per 100,000 residents. A similar relationship exists internationally: Citizens in other developed nations own (on average) about 25 guns per 100 residents, while Americans, with a gun murder rate 20 times larger than those other nations, own 112 guns per 100 residents. Gun ownership kills people.

The inference that America has a gun violence problem, and that this problem stems from high gun ownership, is bolstered by recent headline news from Dallas, Orlando, Newtown, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Aurora and other gory scenes perpetrated by shooters armed with all manner of firearms, including military-style assault rifles. Yet gun advocates often dispute this inference, arguing that there are other causes of the correlation between gun ownership and gun violence, even arguing that we would all be safer if more citizens carried guns.

Such gun advocates should, then, be thrilled by proposals to fund careful research into the true causes of gun violence. Are citizens safer if they have a gun in their home? If they carry a firearm? If firearms are permitted on college campuses? Surely gun advocates, believing as they do that guns don't really kill people, should support serious research into such questions to separate myth from fact.

Alas, gun advocates are curiously adverse to such research. For 20 years, gun activists have blocked research into the causes and consequences of gun violence. In 1996, the National Rifle Association and other groups, exhibiting matchless intellectual dishonesty, stifled such research. Led by Arkansas' own Rep. Jay Dickey, Congress voted to bar the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding any activity that might "advocate or promote gun control." After retiring from Congress in 2001, Dickey completely reversed his position and now regrets this restrictive law -- a turnaround perhaps ascribable to the NRA's inability to threaten him since he left politics.

Last month, California came to the rescue by voting to establish the nation's first public center for studying gun violence. The $1 million per year budget of the new California Firearm Violence Research Center will be too small for large-scale studies, but it can demonstrate the value of this research and build support for Congress to buck the NRA by sponsoring a similar effort.

California State Sen. Lois Wolk says events like Orlando "leave us searching for answers. We know that using real data and scientific methods, our best researchers can help policy makers get past the politics and find real answers to this public health crisis." The new center will gather information on everything from firearm training to guns' role in suicide and homicide.

We've not only failed to pursue the truth about our gun-related health crisis, we've failed to even store data describing the problem. Police officers who find a gun at a crime scene are often unable to look up the owner's name. There is no national registry of guns and their owners because the "Firearm Owners' Protection Act" of 1986 made it illegal for the national government or any state government to keep any such database. And that is because, while Americans favor national gun registration by a large majority, the NRA opposes it.

Despite the NRA, there are hopeful signs: The household gun-ownership rate has fallen from 50 percent in the 1970s to 32 percent today, and congressional Democrats have exhibited some backbone recently.

Certainly citizens should demand such common-sense measures as bans on assault weapons, on large-capacity ammunition magazines, and on open and concealed carry. More fundamentally, Congress should support a scientific search for answers to the questions burned into our consciousness by recent gun outrages.

Commentary on 07/26/2016

Print Headline: America's unexamined gun problem

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