From our cold, dead minds

Guest Commentary

| April 17, 2013

Before there was Wayne LaPierre, there was Charlton Heston. At the 2000 NRA convention, he raised a rifle high over his head, conjured up the straw man of gun confiscation, and declared: "I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands."

Bluster and intimidation have been important elements in the NRA's strategy. But these are not the NRA's only, or even its most potent, tools. The NRA has aggressively and successfully pursued a strategy designed to ensure that the information needed for rational policy discourse is not available.

Largely through riders attached to unrelated legislation by gun-friendly lawmakers, the gun lobby has prevented the collection or analysis of critical data and has erected barriers to much-needed research on gun violence.

Pushed by the gun lobby, Congress cut firearms safety research funding at the Centers for Disease Control by 96 percent in the mid-1990's and added additional gun research restrictions to that and other agencies. Using the argument that any database could be used for gun confiscation, the gun lobby has also prevented collection of almost all data on gun owners, buyers, and sellers. There are no centralized records of gun dealers, and dealers are not required to inventory their merchandise. Tracing guns used in crimes has been made nearly impossible by legal restrictions on maintaining transaction records.

The NRA's de-information strategy has allowed it to bolster its position with the claim that there is little evidence supporting specific gun-reform policies. It is more than ironic that those who fight on the false front of gun confiscation do so by trying to confiscate our knowledge, our reason, and our ability to understand. This is, though, just one skirmish in a growing war over the value and power of information.

A new front opened just recently. The bill to fund the US government through the summer was amended to include a provision that bars the use of National Science Foundation funding to support research in political science unless that research promotes national security or serves US economic interests. One can only imagine the range of research topics that cannot receive taxpayer support.

If not new, we are, at least, in unfamiliar territory – made so by stealth strategies. These assaults on access to information have nothing in common with better-known anti-science arguments, such as those made by advocates of teaching creationism in schools, or those who reject evidence of climate change. The warriors for de-information are not deniers of science. They are instead its truest believers. They understand the power of science, and they fear it. Their goal is not to deny science but to deny access to it.

It is not coincidence that the effort to limit research and restrict access to information comes at a time when the technology for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating information is expanding at a pace unparalleled in history. While the quantity of available information and the speed at which knowledge accumulates are new, the problems these pose, for some, are not. Those who want to limit research and reduce access to information want to do so for the same reasons Galileo was excommunicated and imprisoned for usurping the priestly power to decide the center of the universe. That challenge to power was what was revolutionary about the "scientific revolution," and it's what is truly revolutionary about the "information revolution" today.

The stakes are high. Rational policy on guns, and on everything else, requires information. But by itself, the cold clinical sweep of that idea assumes the power of information, but ignores the power that it challenges. Little did we know that the real fight was over access to facts rather than how we interpret and understand them, and what conclusions should be drawn from them. It is the search for truth that must be protected now, because it is a revolution that some seek to confiscate.

John Klofas is professor of criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Mary Anna Towler's Urban Journal returns next week.

The NRA's attempt to limit research is just one skirmish in a growing war over the value and power of information.


Comments (7)

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Good grief — talk about paranoid conspiracy theories spun up and pasted together from bits of gibberish!

Most thinking people will be amused to learn that the quest for truth, humankind's noblest endeavor, somehow is defined and constrained by the federal budget. Apparently any omission by appropriators amounts to an attack on reason, science and truth, on a par with the Inquisition. (What, no Nazi analogies?)

Sorry, but citizens have every right to say how their finite resources, confiscated through taxation, are to be used and not used. If your pet project loses out, too bad. These resources ought to be used only for the public good, and only when there is the broadest possible consensus on that point.

In this regard, it is perfectly reasonable to insist that funds be spent for their intended purpose. For example, the science research budget should be spent on research in the field of science, and not on so-called "political science". The latter of course has nothing whatsoever to do with science. Those who blur the distinction make a mockery of their own claims to be Galileo's heirs.

Nevertheless, if these people are bound and determined to put out junk "science" custom engineered to incite more anti-gun hysteria, there's certainly no shortage of left-wing foundations and billionaires who will pay for it.

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Posted by j.a.m. on 04/18/2013 at 12:37 AM

It's about time somebody wrote about this. It's an important topic and should be discussed.

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Posted by Gun Reform Advocate on 04/18/2013 at 4:39 AM

the problem is our culture, partisan in the university as well as congress. we live in ny yet i have never heard a mention of what happened here during the revolutionary war. how many people loyal to the english crown were burned out, pushed out and emigrated to canada. how about the civil war atrocities in shermans march to the sea. any research on these topics, no. why, because of the partisanship and subsequent cowardice in academia.
research in these areas would lead to discussion about what a well regulated militia could have done to stop the destruction of lives and property. our country is in trouble because those we rely on for research pick and choose what is politically expedient. i might do the same if my career depended on it.
so we are left with uninformed people taking sides, lacking information that would make a decent discussion possible. never mind what history has to say or statistics, nobody trusts them. just manipulate people to get enough votes for whatever side you choose. not a good way to get the consent of the governed

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Posted by Joe Lake on 04/18/2013 at 12:51 PM

We can't support every study that those in academia want. Find a cure for cancer, yes. Forget about those other ridiculous studies we gear about all the time, even if they sound "scientific" in nature. The most recent was a grant of our tax dollars to study male duck appendages:
( - The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $384,949 grant to Yale University for a study on “Sexual Conflict, Social Behavior and the Evolution of Waterfowl Genitalia”, according to the website.
If this is the kind of nonsense we are funding as "science", we certainly shouldn't be spending any taxpayer dollars on "political science".

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Posted by Bart on 04/18/2013 at 1:26 PM

Thank you for your article. The Gun Lobby collective has been extremely cynical and manipulative. Speaking with those in my family that hunt and treat weapons with respect and caution, it is astounding how the leaderships of these organizations have been able to cloak their actions from their members. I guess it is the old 'mother and apple pie' strategy. It seems to have worked to obscure the areas in which all of us are pretty much in agreement: good record keeping, penalties for gun trafficking, better mental health services, safer gun engineering and a host of other items. The answer is to turn over the rocks and expose the underside. That is why modern data collection system are so feared. They fear the light.

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Posted by Dale on 04/18/2013 at 8:52 PM

Chuck Heston died in 2008. Did anyone get his rifle yet?

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Posted by MJN on 04/20/2013 at 9:22 AM

While there are some important things that the government should be doing in the name of science (I'm still upset at the shrinking of NASA), if the political will isn't there because of high-powered lobbying by a special interest group, the best way to fight back isn't to complain to little effect. While I (probably, based on the name) don't agree with "Gun Reform Advocate" about his/her solutions, I certainly agree that talking about it can be useful. But if you want to DO something about it, you've got options, and the government isn't the only one.

Several weeks ago on NPR's "Morning Edition," a segment of "Joe's Big Idea" discussed some scientists who were crowd-sourcing their research funding:… . I don't see why people seeking to do gun control research cannot do the same thing. There certainly are enough people who would/could help fund the work.

While I don't agree with gun control on a purely libertarian standpoint, I also feel that if you can't get the government to do what you want, then quit complaining and do it yourself (while I mourn the shrinkage of NASA, the void has left room for private enterprise to do at least some of the utilitarian work in space). If your findings are compelling enough, you can make a difference.

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Posted by Yugoboy on 04/24/2013 at 8:29 AM
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