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Why Biden's interest in gun research matters

As Rachel explained last night, Vice President Biden and his task force on gun violence met yesterday with opponents of gun control, including officials from the National Rifle Association, and the meeting was not exactly productive. It appears the Obama administration and the NRA are not on the same page. Try to contain your surprise.

But that doesn't mean the day lacked newsworthy developments.

The vice president noted that his panel is moving forward with a series of recommendations, which will be ready ahead of schedule, and if you watch the clip, you'll notice he referenced a part of the gun debate that's generally overlooked: federally-funded research.

In fact, Biden specifically said his Gun Violence Commission is exploring "the ability of any agency to do research on the issue of gun violence."

When policymakers look for "common sense" reforms on gun policy that enjoy "consensus" support in the American mainstream, they generally talk about measures like restricting high-capacity clips and background checks to prevent suspected terrorists of purchasing firearms.

But if policymakers are making a list of no-brainer reforms, I hope research on gun violence is added to the mix -- because the status quo is ridiculous.

To review what we discussed a few weeks ago, the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby hasn't just fought to kill restrictions on firearm ownership, they've also blocked basic data collection. As a result, there's "no current scientific consensus about guns and violence," in large part because the NRA "has been able to neutralize empirical cases for control."

The most thorough and authoritative analysis is the 2004 report by a panel of leading experts, "Firearms and Violence," sponsored by the National Research Council. Its startling conclusion was that we simply don't know enough to make scientifically grounded judgments about which approaches -- from gun-control measures to permission-to-carry laws -- are likely to work.

The panel's primary recommendation was simply: "If policy makers are to have a solid empirical and research base for decisions about firearms and violence, the federal government needs to support a systematic program of data collection and research that specifically addresses that issue." Or, as an expert quoted in the Times article on the report said, "The main thrust of it is, we don't know anything about anything, and more research is needed."

With this in mind, one might assume that research on firearms and their use would go up, so social scientists could get a more accurate picture from which policies could be made. But since 2004, research has actually decreased, as research funding dried up.

Maybe academics focused attention elsewhere? Hardly. The NRA successfully lobbied to "choke off" research grants, working from the assumption that less data would mean less knowledge, which in turn would lead to less policymaking.

We know how this happened. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began expanding its research into gun-related deaths as a public health issue, so conservatives in Congress added language to the appropriations bill that finances the CDC: "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."

That language never went away.

This doesn't have to be ideological. Maybe you're skeptical of new gun laws; maybe you support them. But I'd like to think knowledge has a certain intrinsic value, and there's no point in having a policy debate in the dark.

As a rule, when an organization insists ignorance is helpful to its larger ambitions, it speaks volumes about the merit of the group's ideas.