Research

‘I Got Nobody’: Scholars of Gun Violence Describe Their Lonely Battles

October 05, 2015

AP Photo/John Locher
Umpqua Community College reopened on a limited basis on Monday, four days after eight students and one professor were killed in a classroom shooting. The massacre renewed debate about the nation's fraught relationship with guns and gun violence.
The painful and predictable pattern has started all over again. A mass shooting at a college campus — this time, Umpqua Community College, in Oregon — followed by various accounts of the victims’ violent end and speculation about the shooter’s motive. Then the public and political debate, or what passes for debate, on a topic that seems to divide the country so deeply.

Most of the news-media focus is on the studied pronouncements of political candidates, but what about the voices of those who actually study the causes of — and possible solutions to — gun violence? Are they frustrated at the tenor of the public debate or the lack of political will to change policy?

Philip J. Cook, of Duke University, and David Hemenway, of Harvard University are two scholars who research the topic. While both take the long view that their work will eventually inform changes in gun-control policy, they also share their frustrations about the lack of scholarly attention to the topic and the sometimes vitriolic public response to their research.

The Chronicle spoke with both researchers. Below are edited excerpts of the conversations:

Mr. Cook, a professor of public-policy studies and economics and sociology, says he began his study of gun violence in the mid-1970s. But his perspective has changed from that of a dispassionate researcher of raw data to someone who evaluates the successes and failures of public policy.

My batting average throughout my career has been pretty abysmal. Another area I’ve worked on is alcohol taxation, and the last time Congress raised the alcohol tax was 1991. Actual alcohol taxes have gone down, considering inflation, but I have the respectful attention of other scholars and public-health advocates.

If you go into this with a long time horizon, perhaps you can be content to be part of the discussion and laying the foundation with the hope that someday the window will open. That’s where I would find some justification for continuing to work in this area. It’s not a matter of seeing results in the policy domain in the next 10 or 20 years, but maybe in the next generation.

There is also a personal side to this, which is not just a question of whether the research is influential. It’s also about, What does it mean to be exposed to the debate? One thing that seems to be true in my experience is that the pro-gun people always are very quick to write letters to the editor or to members of Congress about people like me who, they say, are biased or stupid.

It’s an experience I haven’t had in other areas, and that has been particularly painful, because advocates for moderate regulation do not necessarily see me as a friend or ally because some of my work undercuts their positions. So, I got nobody.

Mr. Hemenway is a professor of health policy and director of Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center. His 2006 book, Private Guns, Public Health, interprets gun violence from a public-health perspective.

I’d say, in my academic career, I’m always looking for areas where I thought I could contribute a lot because it was underresearched. The problem is that there is a real reason these things are underresearched: Often there’s no money or data, or there is a big pushback.

Given that we have so many guns and such a big problem, we need lots of research. I’m at a soft-money school [at which research money comes from outside contributors, not from the institution itself], so that’s an issue. It’s so much easier to raise money for HIV research or obesity research, but guns is not easy to raise money for.

The other thing is, I get all these crazy emails. If I was doing obesity research, I just don’t think I’d get as many. But what keeps me going is that I love the students and I love doing the research. There’s so many success stories in public health.

I wrote this book on success stories in injury and violence prevention … and basically, all the successes, as far as I can tell, there have been people against them. You name it, from in the 1800s. The sanitation revolution — it’s hard to believe that there were people against that. There are people against fluoridation and immunization, airbags and seat belts. You name it. Even helping to get dog poop out of the street in the cities.

A friend of mine has pushed his whole life for fire-safe cigarettes. How can you be against this? But people are.

I’m actually much more optimistic about guns because there have been so many successes. Over time the world has been made safer in so many ways.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.