Do guns make people safer or less safe? Are some guns simply too lethal to be abroad in the land?
At one time, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control was at the forefront in that debate, dedicated to addressing gun violence as a matter of public health. But gun rights advocates cried foul, accusing the CDC of practicing politics rather than science, and Congress agreed, stripping the agency of funding for gun-related research.
Now, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, echoes of that old battle are part of the renewed hue and cry over the place of guns in American society.
Researchers say the means to prevent such tragedies are lacking in part because the National Rifle Association's campaign against the CDC intimidated scientists across the nation. Those who oppose gun control say the scientists sponsored by the CDC were biased and a threat to fundamental American rights.
Neither side minces words.
"Any time we restrict research, it is dangerous for public health and democracy," said Dr. David Satcher, who was director of the CDC in the mid-1990s when the issue came to a head. "It is sad when you really think about it. We are in an environment when children are dying and we are playing political games."
"It was mostly political junk science," retorts Dr. Miguel Faria Jr., a former professor of neurosurgery and editor of the Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia. The CDC, he said, started from the premise "that guns were bad, had no benefits, that guns and bullets were pathogens that needed to be eradicated or at least severely restricted from the civilian population."
Right or wrong, research on the relationship between guns and violence has slowed to a trickle in the past 15 years, researchers say.
Stephen Hargarten, a professor and chairman of emergency medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, once ran a research center funded by the CDC. When federal funding stopped, the focus shifted away from gun violence, he said.
"If we look at the research and dedication to addressing other public health issues, the strategy to reduce gun violence has not received the same attention," Hargarten said. "This is an emotional issue for all sectors, mired in discussions of rights and ownership. So it doesn't get dispatched in scientific ways."
Mark Rosenberg, former director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, had even stronger words. "The scientific community has been terrorized by the NRA," Rosenberg said.
The NRA did not respond to several requests for comment for this story. On Tuesday the organization issued a statement of condolence and said it "is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."
In 1995, Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "The problem that I see with what the CDC is doing is that they are not doing medicine, they're doing politics. And they shouldn't be doing politics."
He added, "There is no medical evidence that if you go and buy a gun, you're going to get hurt. In fact, you can make a pretty good case if you go out and buy a gun, you may be able to save your life."
Lawmakers who agreed first tried unsuccessfully to shut down the CDC's injury center, then stripped the agency of $2.6 million used for firearms-related research.
The CDC's appropriations bill was amended to include the following language: "None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control."
Since 1996, the agency has collected data on the number of deaths and injuries caused by guns, but it has not done studies on the causes of such violence.
In addition, the CDC asks researchers it finances to notify the agency when they publish studies related to firearms. That information is passed on to the NRA as a courtesy.
Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia, said he wasn't in office yet when the CDC debate came before the House, but said he would have voted to curtail funding for studies of gun violence.
"To me, firearms and guns is nothing CDC should be involved in," said Barr, who is also on the NRA board, but was not speaking on the organization's behalf. "It has nothing to do with health. Health has to do with diseases. I don't think when the CDC was created that there would be any contemplation that they would be studying firearms as a health issue."
But those who defend the studies say that CDC's scope extends beyond research on infectious diseases. The agency has studied matters as divergent as auto accidents and dangerous falls by elderly people. Gun-related deaths and injuries impact the public's health, they say.
CDC spokesman Tom Skinner would not address directly the NRA's critique. In a written statement, he said: "CDC is committed 24/7 to prevent violence and injuries and reduce their consequences in an effort to make the U.S. more healthy and safe."
Gun advocates say they are not opposed to research into gun-related violence, so long as it is objective. They say research sponsored by the CDC was one-sided, because it ignored evidence that having a gun can protect people and prevent harm.
"You will find that sometimes the mere fact that somebody might have a gun is a deterrent to crime," said Jerry Henry, executive director of GeorgiaCarry.Org, an advocacy group focused on the rights of gun owners.
Arthur Kellermann, a former Emory researcher, became a focus of NRA criticism in the 90s after he published CDC-funded studies that found more risks than benefits to having a gun in the home. Today, he said, some private foundations and the U.S. Department of Justice fund work on gun violence, but it's a fraction of what existed before the mid-90s.
"I have to acknowledge that the (NRA) strategy of shutting down the pipeline of science was effective," said Kellermann, who later moved on to the RAND Corp. "It is almost impossible today to get federal funding for firearm injury prevention research."
(c)2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)