One important component of rational decision making is acquiring the best available evidence regarding the subject at hand. This is because there are two main components to having a good argument. The first is the quality of the reasoning being used (that is, how well the premises support the conclusion). The second is the quality of the premises (that is, whether they are true/plausible or not). Assuming the goal is to reach the truth, it is essentially irrational to intentionally ignore available evidence. Of course, truth is only rarely the goal that people seek.
One area where we need rational decision making is in regards to gun policy. While I am not anti-gun (far from it-I have been a gun enthusiast since my childhood), I do hold that it is proper for there to laws regulating guns. Being rational, I want the decisions about the laws to be based on the best available evidence. Naturally, I also want the laws to match my core political values (life, liberty, property and justice).
In some cases, people are not interested in having the best available evidence because of irrational reasons: laziness, prejudices, and so on. In other cases, people are rather interested in preventing others from acquiring the best available evidence for what are pragmatically rational reasons. For example, a criminal certainly has a pragmatically rational reason to ensure that others do not acquire evidence of her crimes. As another example, a company that stands to benefit from the ignorance of consumers would have a pragmatically rational reason to keep them ignorant.
While it is estimated that there are 30,000 gun deaths and 70,000 gun injuries in the United States each year (which makes guns about as dangerous as automobiles), there is a shortage of data regarding these deaths and injuries. This is not due to a lack of interest or concern. Rather, it is mainly due to the fact that the NRA’s lobbying efforts effectively limited research into gun violence.
In 1996 the CDC was planning to conduct additional studies of gun-related deaths in the context of public health. These studies were intended to be a follow up on studies conducted since 1985 which all concluded in favor of stricter gun control. In response, Republican Jay Dickey saw to it that the funding for the research was removed from the CDC’s budget. While the funding was restored, it was steadily reduced and the CDC elected to spend the money on studying traumatic brain injuries.
In addition to the tactic of cutting funding, a law was passed that states that “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.”
As might be inferred, these tactics have had the desired impact, namely a significant reduction in research on gun-related deaths and injuries. This is not to say that there is no research. There have been studies regarding guns and gun ownership and some results indicate that gun ownership is a health risk-especially in regards to children of gun owning parents. This, as might be guessed, suggests the desire on the part of the NRA to prevent scientific studies of gun-related deaths and injuries.
On the face of it, this attempt to impede research on gun-related deaths and injuries would seem to be immoral. First, there is the moral concern with intentionally trying to impede the acquisition of information that could be very useful in preventing needless deaths and injuries. It is, of course, interesting to contrast this intentional impediment of scientific research with the willingness to intrude on rights and liberties under the banner of national security. In the case of matters linked to terrorism, the stock argument is that these rights and liberties must be sacrificed on utilitarian grounds. That is, it is claimed that the benefits of such intrusions is worth the harms done. However, if the need to prevent the harms of terrorism warrants intrusions on basic rights and liberties, then it would seem rather inconsistent to attempt to prevent public research into gun-related violence.
Second, there is also the general moral concern with intentionally trying to impede the search for truth. While it is understandable that the NRA and certain other folks would rather that ignorance be maintained, this hardly makes it right.
One possible reply is to make a moral case on utilitarian grounds. Those who wish to prevent the funding of such studies could contend that they might be used to argue successfully in favor of expanding gun control and this would create more harms than benefits.
One obvious problem with this reply is that if the studies did show that gun control would be beneficial for society as a whole and thus provide a reasonable basis for gun control, then it would be the case that the studies would create more overall benefits than harms. This could be countered by adopting an ethical egoist position, namely that the folks who regard gun control as contrary to their interests are acting morally by opposing such studies. Naturally, the folks whose interests are served by gun control (such as potential victims of gun violence) would be equally right in supporting such research. So, if one is willing to accept ethical egoism as the correct moral view, then all the parties who are acting in their interest are right. This does, however, come with its own problems.
Another reply is to contend that such studies would lead to intrusions on the second amendment by providing evidence that would justify expanding gun control. As such, this evidence must be intentionally suppressed in defense of the second amendment. This is certainly an interesting variant of the stock second amendment arguments regarding gun control.
While the idea of defending rights via imposed ignorance has a certain magic to it, this does seem problematic. The obvious reply is that such rights are not absolute and they can be justly limited. To use the usual stock example, the right of free speech does not extend to slander. As such, some additional limitations on the already limited second amendment rights could be justified by such studies. Also, it seems rather odd to justify imposing ignorance on the grounds that studies might reveal some information that might prove useful in arguing for expanding gun control. After all, such studies might reveal that there is no need for any expansion of gun control laws. Then again, the fact that the NRA has lobbied to prevent such studies strongly suggests that such studies would reveal information that would provide rational support for expanding gun control laws.
Since the above attempts have failed, perhaps another tact could be taken in defense of the law restricting funding for research into gun violence.
The specific wording of the law, it should be noted, does not forbid funding studies of gun violence. Rather, it states that “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.”
One, perhaps naive, way to interpret this is that the folks who had the law written are merely trying to prevent public money being used to advance a specific political agenda, namely that of gun control. On this interpretation, the funding could be used to study gun violence provided that none of the funding is used in advocacy or promotion. This seems reasonable enough. After all, using public money to advocate or promote a particular agenda (such as traditional marriage) would surely be wrong.
The first reply to this is that whatever the interpretation, the effect of the law has been to take away the funds for research into gun violence as a public health issue. As such, the law is effectively a band on federal spending to research gun violence.
The second reply is that the law mandates that funded studies cannot conclude that gun control would be beneficial to the health of the public. Such a conclusion would presumably all under advocating or promoting gun control. As such, studies can be funded provided that those conducting the studies promise to draw no conclusion involving positive effects of gun control. As such, studies that conclude that gun control is bad or useless would be just fine. As such, researchers would be free to pursue the truth, provided that this pursuit did not lead to a truth indicating that gun control would be beneficial to public health. That certainly appears to be an immoral and unreasonable limitation.