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Beyond Iowa Nice: Stale Dialogue and Stagnant Research Blunt Progress in Reducing Gun Violence

John Reese
A bill that would have expanded the right for children to use handguns was a sticking point in the gun debate in the Iowa legislature last year.

Nathan Gibson--gun owner, gun rights activist, and father of two girls active in shooting sports--and AkoAbdul-Samad--democratic legislator, gun control advocate, and father of one boy who died of gun violence--are sitting in a radio studio together. The mood in the room is not tense at all. Serious, thoughtful, committed: yes. But a far cry from tense. A better word may be congenial. Or even friendly.

To be fair, they've both been in front of the Iowa Public Radio microphone before--Abdul-Samad to speak on a host on legislative issues and systemic inequality in the wake of Ferguson, and Gibson to discuss proposed legislation that would have allowed children to use handguns, an issue he feels is key to understanding his perspective on second amendment rights and reducing gun violence.

"For me, to prevent accidents, the best way is knowledge, teaching, and education; and I can no longer do that in the state of Iowa. I am actually a felon for trying to teach my kids about gun safety," says Gibson.

Representative Abdul-Samad for his part, doesn't directly disagree. He does, however, say that part of the problem when trying to tackle the issue of gun violence is the fact that gun rights advocates and gun legislation advocates are speaking different languages.

"What has happened today is a few people of different backgrounds have come together, and I consider this as a public health conversation we just started."

"When we're talking about gun violence and we're talking about educating our children about guns, it's apples and oranges. [...] When we're talking about gun violence, we have to line a clear demarcation between individuals having access to guns illegally, and adults giving guns to kids, to a father who could buy one and actually teach his children how to hunt and the safety of that."

Still, despite their differences of opinion on policies like the "No Fly, No Buy" legislation, the ease and respect they have when discussing those differences makes Abdul-Samad optimistic for the future.

"I would like to see Nate and I get together and hold forums so we're showing that we're not talking about taking away somebody's second amendment right, but what we are talking about is curbing gun violence. [...] I think Nate and others can come together, rather than let individuals separate us, like we are fighting to take away someone's Second Amendment, but to come and talk and have the real conversation about gun violence itself in the communities that are having that problem."  

Gibson agrees, citing areas like mental health funding where both sides may agree.

"We just have to find a common ground between taking away a US citizen's constitutional right and also protecting. And like he said, there are extremes that end up separating us, and I think there probably is some areas where we could work together and make some good progress without infringing on rights."

Beyond differences in perspective, however, is a more concrete barrier to reaching understanding when it comes to gun violence: a lack of scientific research. The Center for Disease Control hasn't funded a study aimed at reducing harm from guns in fifteen years. While they've kept data on the numbers of gun injuries and deaths in that time, research studying the catalysts behind gun violence, and the effects of legislation on it, is still thin on the ground.

"They do not actively collect gun ownership data, which means, you know, our research is not really complete without such crucial information," says Bindu Kalesan.

So, Kalesan decided to fill in those gaps at Boston University, where she's an assistant professor in the department of medicine. There, she's studied the efficacy of gun laws state-to-state and how social gun culture affects gun ownership.

"Any research is better when we understand why. And therefore we thought, 'Okay, let's look at the prevailing gun culture.' So we did a small study of 4,000 people, and we found that there's a strong relationship between gun ownership and experiencing gun culture. Those who experience social gun culture are more likely to own guns and vice versa."

Studying the qualitative, personal values associated with guns, in Kalesan's estimation, is as crucial as policy-focused quantitative data. The more specific the information on gun injury and gun death can be--by age, location, and type--the better.

"If we're going to restrict back to individual-level factors, we need to understand a little bit more based on gun culture, and we also need to understand the state-level social factors related."

That type of information, Kalesan says, will allow for tailored programs state by state, community by community. Regardless of focus, she says the studies that have already been conducted are just the first step in a much longer road of research. The framing of future research like hers gives Gibson pause.

"Obviously, we want to understand the problem, and whatever information we can collect is valuable to understanding the problem. [...] My concern is what is the narrative, who's collecting that data, and how they're going to present and deliver that data in a fair and balanced way. My concern with the CDC is they don't necessarily do that." 

In the meantime, Kalesan is working on research that will provide a larger, clearer picture of how guns fit into American society and hopefully enable a larger swath of people to be part of discussions like the one Gibson and Abdul-Samad just achieved.

"What has happened today is a few people of different backgrounds have come together, [...] and I consider this as a public health conversation we just started, and I have learned a whole lot more. This is the reason why we also studied social gun culture, so we can have a cohesive solution, instead of fighting each other."

In this hour of River to River:

  • BinduKalesan, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at Boston University
  • John Lundell, mayor of Coralville and retired Deputy Director at the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of Iowa
  • Nathan Gibson, gun-owner, hunter and father
  • Ako Abdul-Samad, Democratic Representative in the state legislature, and founder of Creative Visions, a non-profit that addresses the use of drugs, gang violence, and crime involving at-risk youths
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River