Alvin Bessent joined the Newsday editorial board in 1993. He writes about national government policy and politics.
Armed and ignorant is a deadly combination. Apparently it's also the gun lobby's vision for America.
The armed part is easy to grasp. It's the National Rifle Association's reason for being. Listen to its leaders talk about defending against government tyranny, and it seems they won't be happy until individuals can own any weapon the military has in its arsenal.
I prefer my Second Amendment rights leavened with reasonable restrictions, like universal background checks, limits on ammo clips and tough anti-trafficking laws. But America has a proud tradition of tolerance for differing views, even radical ones.
It's the ignorant part that's exasperating.
The federal government hasn't funded research on gun violence in more than 15 years. Not one dime to figure out how to prevent gun deaths. Even though there were 32,163 of them nationally in 2011, we're willfully ignorant on the subject.
That same year 32,367 people died in auto accidents. The difference is there's an entire federal agency -- the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- and about $124 million a year in tax dollars devoted to understanding how to prevent death on the roads. It's no coincidence that cars and roads have been made safer with things like air bags and anti-lock brakes, rumble strips and high-tech guardrails, or that traffic deaths hit a 60-year low in 2011.
Due in part to the NRA, a former freshman congressman from Arkansas and a needlessly polarized debate, there's been no similar progress on gun deaths.
Jay Dickey was that congressman. Back in 1996, based on information from the NRA, he believed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control had an agenda. It had found that a gun at home doesn't make people safer, but instead made it three times more likely they'd be homicide victims and five times more likely they'd commit suicide.
"I was told it was a one-sided deal. The agenda was more on getting rid of guns than saving children," Dickey said in an interview Friday from Arkansas, where he lives in retirement. So he slipped an amendment into a spending bill that cut $2.6 million for firearm-related research and barred using federal funds "to advocate or promote gun control."
Those words killed federal funding for research on gun violence as a public health problem.
Dr. Mark Rosenberg, the center's director at the time, said the research was looking at four simple things. What's the problem: Who gets shot, when, where, why and how? What are the causes? What would prevent these deaths? And how do you implement programs that work?
Rosenberg, who likes to shoot skeet, said in an interview that the center wasn't advocating gun control. He just wanted answers. "We don't have to live in a country where thousands of people are massacred. These are preventable problems," he said.
Today Rosenberg and Dickey are kindred spirits. There's a lesson in that: Reasonable people can bridge this divide. Dickey still wants to protect the right to bear arms, but he no longer sees studying gun violence as a threat. "It's just a shame we haven't been funding this all this time," he said.
The government can't take the public's guns. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that we have the right to own firearms, but the government can regulate them. Research is the best way to identify restrictions that will save the most lives.
In a bid to restart that effort, President Barack Obama signed an executive order Jan. 16 rejecting the prevailing interpretation of the Dickey amendment. But that's no guarantee things will change. The gun lobby is still a force, but we shouldn't remain in the dark about combating gun violence.
We're going to be armed, so we need to be smart about it.
Alvin Bessent is a member of the Newsday editorial board.