Good legislation begins with good data
Almost three weeks since the mass shooting in Las Vegas, we know little about what motivated a gunman to open fire on the peaceful crowd enjoying an outdoor concert below his hotel room.
The direct and indirect effects of his horrific actions on people's lives — including those of many Oregon residents — may never be known but the politicization of the event is already well underway. Calls for gun control legislation have predictably resurfaced yet again, but this time there has been a shift, albeit a small one, in the national gun debate.
The National Rifle Association responded to calls for stricter firearm legislation not with its typical knee-jerk "over my dead body" stance but, instead, with a "well, maybe."
An organization that takes pride in never giving an inch may do just that.
Four days after the shooting, the nation's most powerful gun group called on federal regulators to review whether so-called bump stocks comply with federal law. These devices, used by the Las Vegas shooter, allow legal semi-automatic guns to function similar to fully automatic guns, which are largely banned for civilian use. In Congress, several NRA-backed Republicans are joining the call to ban bump stocks.
It's not enough, but it's a start.
One of the most vexing aspects of the national debate over gun control is that the NRA doesn't represent the views of most gun owners. Consider:
¦ Surveys show 85 percent of gun owners support universal background checks. Current loopholes in the patchwork of state and local laws allow nearly a quarter of gun transactions to take place without such a check through private sales.
¦ A majority of gun owners support a federal database of gun sales and ban on sales to those convicted of domestic violence or with a history of mental illness.
¦ Almost half of gun owners think all high-powered assault rifles should be illegal for civilian use.
There are, of course, other more restrictive proposals, including many that would likely not survive a court challenge. But other common-sense steps could be taken without violating the Second Amendment.
Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, for example, has long a backed a series of modest reforms, including those above. His check list also includes requiring gun owners to purchase liability insurance, allowing doctors to discuss gun violence as a health issue with their patients and requiring law enforcement officials to follow up with anyone who fails a background check for a gun purchase.
Those, too, seem like places where gun advocates and gun critics can have a discussion over policy instead of turning what is a public safety issue into a social issue.
One of the most helpful steps in moving forward on the issue would be to get good data. And yet for more than 20 years, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have faced their own ban — this one on collecting data for studying gun violence.
That's because in 1996, after CDC-funded research suggested that the presence of firearms in the home increased the likelihood of homicide, the NRA enlisted Rep. Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican, to successfully push for an end to the agency's research that could be used to advocate gun control.
Dickey, now retired, has said he regrets the law. But 20-plus years later, it remains. President Obama, following the 2012 massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, instructed the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control to "conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it."
The agency, however, balked, saying it needed a specific vote from Congress to do so. And, following the NRA lead, Congress has refused to fund the $10 million request.
If it sounds like we're not advocating for enough to be done with regards to gun control, you're right. However, good legislation begins with good data, which is exactly what this issue lacks.
Last year, the GOP-controlled Congress blocked efforts to hold hearings on repealing the so-called "Dickey amendment." Given the events in Las Vegas, and the NRA's openness to at least minor regulation, it's time for members Oregon's Congressional delegation to make another push. We know we have a problem with gun violence. It's time to let federal health experts study it so that we can limit its impact.
— Pamplin Media Group Editorial Board