Congress is preparing for its first major debate on federal gun laws in nearly a decade, but first both sides will need to figure out whose facts to use.
In the wake of the deadly school shootings in Newtown, Conn., gun-control advocates point to figures that seem to show a correlation between stricter laws and lower crime and homicide rates. Pro-gun groups, though, say the data show just the opposite — that violence and crime drops where concealed-carry laws are allowed.
The press and the public are caught in the middle, searching for concrete conclusions that are tough to come by.
Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, said that while everything should be on the table for discussion in the gun debate, the sheer volume of data presents a challenge for moving legislation forward — beginning with the 1994 assault weapons ban, which either helped or hindered crime-fighting efforts, depending on whose numbers are to be believed.
"There's been an awful lot of studies with regards to what a ban did and what happened after that," Mr. Roberts said. "The use of those kind of weapons actually went up after the ban, so you've got to figure that out."
Some statistics are contradictory.
Gun killings in 2010 were at their lowest rate since 1981, but the gun suicide rate was its highest since 1998 and the nonfatal injury rate from guns hit a three-year high in 2011, according to FactCheck.org. Those numbers were released after U.S. gun manufacturing increased 64 percent between 2007 and 2011.
Government and academic investigations on the matter also differ. A 2000 study by the Justice Department found that juvenile homicide rates increased by 65 percent between 1987 and 1993, but dropped from 1993 to 1997; the drop was attributed in part to tighter gun laws, including the 1994 assault-weapons ban, which ran for 10 years before lapsing in 2004.
But the Gun Owners of America says another Justice Department study from 1999 concluded that ban "has failed to reduce the average number of victims per gun-murder incident or multiple-gunshot wound victims," a key point since the commonest argument for controls on military-style weapons and magazine sizes is that such guns make mass, spree killings too easy.
A 2004 University of Pennsylvania study commissioned by the Justice Department seemed to back up both sides. It found that violence associated with assault weapons declined after the ban took effect but said that didn't mean fewer deaths.
"Indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence, based on indicators like the percentage of gun crimes resulting in death or the share of gunfire incidents resulting in injury," the authors wrote.
David Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank, looked at mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut this month, and said they have definitely increased since the 1980s. But he said that can't be because of gun laws, which have not become more lax in that period, nor is it because of large-capacity magazines, which have been around for decades.
Instead, he said, the culprit may be a change in mental health treatment.
"In the mid-1960s, many of the killings would have been prevented because the severely mentally ill would have been confined and cared for in a state institution," he wrote in a recent opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. "But today, while government at most every level has bloated over the past half-century, mental health treatment has been decimated."
Part of the problem is that data have become harder to come by, said Arthur L. Kellermann and Frederick P. Rivara. They said research started to freeze after Congress cut funding for promoting gun control in a 1996 spending bill.
"Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear," they wrote in an article published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency's funding to find out. Extramural support for firearm-injury prevention research quickly dried up. Even today, 17 years after this legislative action, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's] website lacks specific links to information about preventing firearm-related violence," they wrote.
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