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Gun control 101: Why is Obama pushing for new gun research?

A key part of President Obama's plan to rein in gun violence is his push to kick-start fresh gun-control-related research by federal agencies. Republicans have blocked such research in the past.

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This congressional prohibition did not end the study of guns in America, of course. The federal government does not fund all of the nation’s social research. In addition, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, continue to estimate statistics such as the percentage of homicides committed with firearms.

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What are missing are more expansive studies, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

“None of the existing sources of statistics provide either comprehensive, timely, or accurate data with which to assess definitively whether there is a causal connection between firearms and violence,” writes CRS’s William Krouse.

Other researchers say that right now the US has little information on basic gun topics, such as how many people own what sorts of guns in what cities and states. There is not much good information on the correlation of gun ownership to homicide rates, or what percentage of guns used in crimes were obtained legally, and if not, where they came from.

“Without improvements in this situation, the substantive questions in the field about the role of guns in suicide, homicide and other crimes, and accidental injury are likely to continue to be debated on the basis of conflicting empirical findings,” concluded an in-depth 2005 National Research Council study of the state of firearms and violence data.

What did Obama do on this subject?

On Wednesday, Obama vowed to end the “freeze” on gun-violence research. Among other things, he issued a presidential memorandum directing CDC and other US scientific agencies to conduct research into the causes and prevention of such crimes.

Obama said he based this move on a legal analysis that the existing appropriations language does not block wide-ranging investigations.

“The CDC will start immediately by assessing existing strategies for gun violence and identifying the most pressing research questions, with the greatest potential public health impact,” reads a fact sheet on the president’s gun plan.

Obama also called on Congress to appropriate $10 million to CDC for further work, including an effort to better understand the relationship between video games, media images, and violence. And he asked for another $20 million to expand the National Violent Death Reporting System, which collects anonymous data on the nature of firearms used in murders or suicides, to all 50 states from its current 18.

Will Obama's moves work?

His call for the CDC to dive into research is simply a legal analysis that it is all right for them to do so under current law. That is within his power to order, though it remains to be seen how eagerly CDC will take up the banner, and whether pro-gun groups will file suit to try and stop it.

As to his calls for Congress to direct more cash to this area, good luck. It is possible that members will see this as a less controversial alternative to more sweeping measures such as the proposed assault-weapons ban. It is also possible that the current tight fiscal environment will allow Capitol Hill to shuffle the suggestions aside.

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