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When I was growing up, there was a frequently heard saying: “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.” Unlike a lot of other folk adages, it’s wrong. When it characterizes a widely held attitude among policymakers and the voters alike, it is very wrong.
We recognize the problem when it occurs in the general public. It arises because a lot of folks–especially younger people–shrug off the suggestion that they need to pay attention to what our political class is doing. They have lives to live, livings to earn, children to raise, parties to attend. Let the politicians tend to governing.
But what if our policymakers don’t want information either?
A recent report in the New York Times–buttressed by an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association–offers a prime example of this “I don’t want/need to know” attitude and its consequences.
In the wake of the horrendous shootings of schoolchildren in Connecticut, followed almost immediately by the ambush of firefighters in New York, fingers were pointed at the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives. ATF is—theoretically, at least—an agency with statutory authority to thwart gun violence. (It is also an agency that has been without a permanent director for six years, thanks to the persistent partisan gridlock in Congress that has operated to block a scandalous number of Obama Administration appointments.)
It turns out that the ATF is hampered by restrictions in the law, the result of NRA lobbying efforts that have been dutifully rewarded by Congress. As the Times editorial noted,
Under current laws the bureau is prohibited from creating a federal registry of gun transactions. So while detectives on television tap a serial number into a computer and instantly identify the buyer of a firearm, the reality could not be more different.
Thanks to the NRA—and unlike many countries–the U.S. doesn’t have a gun registry database, because the NRA contends that the availability of such information would “pose a threat to the Second Amendment.”
In fact, the NRA evidently thinks that information of any kind poses a threat to its version of the Second Amendment.
Recently, a former student of mine shared a reprint of an article published by JAMA, the Journal of the AMA. The article began by detailing several of the most recent mass shootings, and noting that in the U.S., firearms kill more than 31,000 citizens annually. The authors cited research finding that ready access to guns in the home “increases, rather than reduces” a family’s risk of homicide in the home. Then they made their main point:
The nation might be in a better position to act if medical and public health researchers had continued to study these issues as diligently as some of us did between 1985 and 1997. But in 1996, pro-gun members of Congress mounted an all-out effort to eliminate the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC. Although they failed to defund the center, the House of Representatives removed $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget–precisely the amount the agency had spent on firearm injury research the previous year.
The funding was restored in joint conference committee, but only on condition that it be earmarked for research into traumatic brain injury. And just in case researchers missed the point, the following language was added to the final appropriation: “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
Similar language has been added to funding for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, after a research study was funded by that agency to determine whether carrying a gun increased or decreased the risk of firearm assault. The JAMA article detailed similar restrictions that have been placed on other agencies’ research agendas.
The NRA is, unfortunately, not alone in its insistence that policy be made on the basis of ideology rather than evidence. And that is a bigger problem than gun control policy.
We see lawmakers’ allergy to information in areas from the failed and pernicious drug war to “enhanced interrogation” techniques to economic policy. Does the available evidence contradict our cherished beliefs about what government ought to do? Then the evidence must be wrong. Turn to a different cable news channel, tune in to a favored talk radio show, or read a blog that dismisses that pesky evidence in favor of our pre-existing prejudices.
We don’t need no stinking evidence anyway.
Unfortunately, there is such a thing as reality, and it generally cannot be wished away. When we don’t have good information, reliable data on which we can base sound policy, we don’t get sound policies.
When those we elect pass laws prohibiting research—when they write laws that are intended to prevent us from obtaining the facts we need in order to inform our policy decisions—it’s a sign of profound intellectual dishonesty.
Ignorance is not bliss. What we don’t know certainly can hurt us. Just ask the residents of Newtown, Connecticut.
Author: Sheila Suess Kennedy is Professor of Law and Public Policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.