What’s Missing in the California Gun Bills: Money for Research

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

I recently had to moderate a Zocalo Public Square event on the gun debate, and in the process, I had to read research on gun politics and gun regulation, from a wide variety of sources.

What stood out in my reading was how old most of the research is. Whether the research was about the virtues of gun control and gun safety, or advanced gun-rights-oriented arguments for concealed carry, very little of the data was any more recent than 1994.

There’s a reason for this. Gun rights advocates in Congress, backed by the NRA, were successful in 1996 in imposing a ban on federal funding for research that might promote gun control.

The result: we know far too little about the impact of different kinds of gun regulations and rules. The number of academics doing research on these questions is way down. And so when I read competing claims by gun control and gun rights groups, I had the sense that many of the claims were based on old data and guesses.

So much has changed since 1994 – not only in gun laws, but also in our society, in our crime (violent gun crime is way down), in technology, in the nature and power of guns – that we desperately need new research. With the federal government unlikely to reverse its ban on research, California would be the natural funder of research.

We already have a number of intrepid groups and researchers – perhaps most notably Garen Wintemute at UC Davis – who have found ways to do good work without federal research funding. And since the state has been advancing gun regulations, it seems there is a commensurate responsibility to fund research on how these and other laws work, so that the laws can be tweaked and improved.

This wouldn’t take a lot of money. $25 million would change the game and make California a national leader. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the billions the state is spending on stem cell research. Gov. Brown has been saying that California isn’t waiting for Washington, and this is one area in which we shouldn’t wait. The stakes are high. Approximately 30,000 people in the U.S. are killed by guns each year.

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