Public health experts and scientists celebrated President Barack Obama's gun plan Tuesday, saying firearm safety is clearly a public health issue and urging Congress to embrace science in the fight for gun-law reform.
Obama, surrounded by victims of recent mass shootings, detailed a series of executive orders aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous buyers.
"With more research, we could further improve gun safety. Just as with more research, we've reduced traffic fatalities enormously over the last 30 years," Obama said Tuesday.
"We do research when cars, food, medicine, even toys harm people so that we make them safer. And you know what — research, science — those are good things. They work."
The White House and public health experts have likened gun research to the work that led to seat belt laws. As with car accidents, gun violence isn't a disease but it is a major killer, said Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University's O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.
"Firearm injuries are, first and foremost, a public health problem. We can and should use the law as a tool to prevent and control firearm injuries." Gostin said.
"Our nation's epidemic of gun violence exacts far too high a toll on the health of our communities," added Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
"The actions the president is announcing today are important steps to help keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn't have them. These are steps he is able to take using existing law to strengthen gun safety protections, and we applaud them."
But Congress has blocked federal health agencies from researching, or even paying for research, on gun violence since the 1990s. A visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website shows no entry under "F" for firearms or "G" for guns, although there's a section under "M" for motor vehicle injuries.
Firearms data is buried in a larger report on all causes of death. It shows 21,000 people died by suicide using a gun, and 11,000 homicides were committed using guns in 2013.
And just last month Congress repeated its code language aimed at squelching gun research. "None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control," the December spending bill reads.
Advocates of research into gun violence don't understand how it can hurt to study the associations among gun ownership, gun laws and gun deaths.
"Imagine another public health problem that killed tens of thousands each year, and Congress refused to act," Gostin said.
Even Jay Dickey, the former Arkansas member of Congress who helped write the bill that stopped CDC's gun research, says it went too far.
"The thing that really brought this to my mind was watching as the little barricades were set up between the interstate to stop head-on collisions," Dickey told NPR last month. "Enormous reduction of head-on collisions has been caused just by that little two-and-a-half, three-foot fence. We could do the same in the gun industry."
There are several potential ways to make guns safer, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) says.
"There is a role for researchers in developing technology for safer guns that can be fired only by authorized users," said AAAS CEO Rush Holt.
Keeping guns out of the hands of people who might commit suicide would be a major bonus, the American Psychological Association said. "Suicide is a problem of extraordinary magnitude and many suicides are committed with guns," the group said in a statement.
Obama was at pains to note that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violence than attackers themselves. But he's also instructing the Social Security Administration to come up with ways to share details about people who cannot manage disability benefits because of mental health issues.
He proposed lifting limits imposed by HIPAA — the law that protects confidential health information — to allow states to report some information about mental health issues to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
The issue of reporting mental health information is the most controversial of Obama's actions as far as health experts are concerned.
"The stigma associated with mental illness and the erroneous belief that those with mental illness are inherently violent can only be reinforced by equating psychiatric disability and competence to manage one's finances as determined by the Social Security Administration with a mandate to release this status to the NICS background check system," said Dr. Liz Gold, a forensic psychiatrist at Georgetown.
In recent years, privately funded researchers have been publicizing their own findings about gun violence.
They've found police officers are most likely to be killed in states where the most people own guns; that mass killings inspire copycats; and that states with the strictest gun laws have the fewest gun deaths.
And last year, the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine accused the National Rifle Association of political blackmail in lobbying against the appointment of Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general.
The NRA opposed Murthy, who was eventually sworn in last year, because he'd spoken out for mandatory gun safety training and an assault weapons ban.