Sanchez: End imposed ignorance of harm guns do

A revealing thing happened in the grief-filled days that followed the massacre of helpless children and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Virtually every conversation about gun control, about any possible remedy for gun violence, hit a roadblock. We just didn’t know a lot about the guns circulating in America.

How many guns are in the U.S.? We don’t have reliable figures.

Is there a connection between gun violence and the depictions of violence in video games and movies? Studies on that issue are few and inconclusive.

Just how do guns wind up in the hands of the mentally ill or the criminally minded? To answer that, we’d have to do a better job of tracking guns used in crimes.

This national ignorance is the cover under which the gun lobby hides. Its denialism and simplistic wishful thinking – the solution to mass shootings is more “good guys with a gun” – thrives and holds sway because we have failed to study the problem and base our policy decisions on a sound basis: evidence.

Things may be about to change. A new report pushes us one step closer to treating gun violence as a public health issue. If allowed to gain traction, this change in attitude will have huge consequences.

The report was issued by a panel of experts called together under executive order by President Obama after Newtown killings. The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council assembled the panel and has set priorities to focus research.

Obama is asking for $10 million in the 2014 budget to fund research. Time will tell if Congress has the backbone to follow through. It has folded before.

Money for such research was halted in the mid-1990s under pressure by the National Rifle Association. Ever since, we’ve been stumbling along as a nation, racking up more than a quarter million deaths by gunfire in the last decade alone.

Because we haven’t gathered a great deal of data on how guns are used in America – for self-defense, in crime, in suicides – we have permitted all sorts of magical thinking.

Hence, some have argued that the solution to mass shootings is to get rid of “gun-free zones,” which (they reason) create easy targets for killers to seek. Then there’s the argument that simply giving children more education about gun safety will lessen their chances of playing with a weapon. What does the evidence say? Well, studies conflict. More and better research would help assess policy proposals.

The president’s panel has selected five areas for focus: the characteristics of gun violence, risk and protective factors, prevention and other interventions, gun safety technology, and the influence of video games and other media.

The aim is not to take guns away from people. It’s about making gun ownership and use safer. It’s about respecting the lethal nature of the weapons enough to reduce accidents, suicides and gun use by the untrained and criminals.

The report took pains to address the fear of creating any sort of national database for gun ownership, a favorite bugbear of gun-control critics. It notes that “anonymized data should be used to protect civil liberties.”

In fact, more and better information could decrease the gulf between those who see gun ownership as an absolute and integral American right and those who regard guns as a serious public health problem. The two points of view need not be mutually exclusive.

Think about the great benefits to American society that have come from efforts to change attitudes about road safety, as well as improvements to roadway design. Countless lives have been saved by a process that began after the federal government began thoroughly studying car wrecks.

By understanding better how people were being injured, both government and industry could make sensible changes. Some key changes were instituted by law, such as speed limits and seat belt usage. Some were safety design changes initiated by manufacturers. After all, protecting the car’s “precious cargo” is a great selling proposition.

Wouldn’t the same argument appeal to a responsible gun owner? This model is less likely to be used by a child or stolen and used by a criminal due to biometrics.

We didn’t confiscate people’s cars. We simply mitigated the injury and loss of life they caused.

As the debate about funding research into firearms goes forward, note which organizations and politicians fight mightily against it. It will speak volumes.

The status quo is unacceptable. And those who fight research and understanding will be telling us that they are satisfied with the way things stand.

• Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108-1413, or email msanchez@kcstar.com.