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The other day, we posed a deceptively simple question to NPR's Carrie Johnson. The question is how gun laws affect gun violence. Turns out it's hard to say. It seems many factors affect violence, not just the law but how it's applied. And on a deeper level, we really do not know what works. Even in this data-driven age there is not so much research about how weapons affect society.
Public health research on guns dried up more than a decade ago, and you'll hear why when Carrie Johnson tells the story of one researcher.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Art Kellermann grew up in eastern Tennessee, where his daddy taught him how to shoot a gun when he was 10 years old. Kellermann grew up to become an ER doctor and a target for gun rights groups, when he started asking questions like these.
DR. ART KELLERMANN: To find out if a gun kept in the home was used, who did it shoot and what were the consequences?
JOHNSON: Kellermann found people turned those guns on themselves and others in the house, far more often than on intruders.
KELLERMANN: In other words, a gun kept in the home was 43 times more likely to be involved in the death of a member of the household, than to be used in self-defense.
JOHNSON: Kellermann says the National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment advocates leaned on his then-employer, Emory University, to stop the research. That didn't work. So...
KELLERMANN: They turned to a softer target, which was the CDC, the organization that was funding much of this work. And although gun injury prevention research was never more than a tiny percentage of the CDC's research budget, it was enough to bring them under the fire of the NRA.
JOHNSON: Lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, held back some money from the Centers for Disease Control and made clear no federal funds should be used to promote gun control. Many researchers interpreted that message to mean this: No public health studies about injuries from weapons.
Then, a few years later, Congress weighed in again, in a slightly different way. In 2003, Todd Tiahrt, a Republican congressman from Kansas, added language to the Justice Department's annual spending bill. It says the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can't release information used to trace guns involved in crime to researchers and members of the public. And it requires the FBI to destroy records on people approved to buy guns within 24 hours.
Tiahrt left Congress in 2011 but he still thinks the idea is a good one.
TODD TIAHRT: It was an issue of privacy. It's an issue of protecting undercover officers, prison guards. The BATFE was also very concerned because if that information was released to the public, it could affect their efforts to try get illegal guns and illegal gun sales in jail or off the street.
JOHNSON: Tiahrt says some of his fears about invasion of privacy were borne out last month, when a New York newspaper got local gun permit data and published the names of gun owners.
Mark Glaze directs a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
MARK GLAZE: I think it was a bad idea that the newspaper did this.
JOHNSON: But Glaze says the right response to that case is not to shut down the flow of information.
GLAZE: You can't make good policy unless you have good data.
JOHNSON: Glaze is pressing Congress to get rid of the Tiahrt amendments. He's urging the Justice Department to look for patterns involving crooked gun dealers who put weapons into the hands of criminals. And he wants more money for research about how to make safer guns.
Rosa DeLauro is a member of Congress from Connecticut. She's the top Democrat on the House committee that deals with the health budget.
REPRESENTATIVE ROSA DELAURO: We conduct evidence-based research into car crashes, smoking, cancer, all sorts of accidents and injuries. So why? Why shouldn't we be doing the same kind of research into how to prevent firearm injuries and how to save lives?
JOHNSON: DeLauro says she'll fight to make sure funding limits on research stay out of the appropriations bills. But her onetime colleague, former Congressman Tiahrt from Kansas, says that's not the core of the problem.
TIAHRT: We have to get to the cause of it. Mental illness, the violence in our culture, those are the things that I think Vice President Biden ought to be focusing on.
JOHNSON: Public health experts like Art Kellermann say they're willing to have that kind of broad conversation but it needs to be supported with a lot more research.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.