The right to bear arms, as guaranteed by the Second Amendment, is at once both distinctly American and highly controversial.
Suppose that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) funded research which found that individuals who eat meat are more likely to die of heart disease than those who don’t. (I am making this up; I have no idea whether this is true or not.) The meat lobby objects and says that the CDC should not be allowed to fund research that advocates against eating meat.
Or suppose that the CDC funded research which found that individuals who drove cars were more likely to die in an auto-related accident than those who didn’t drive cars. The auto lobby objects and says that CDC should not be allowed to fund research that advocates against driving cars.
Isn’t it obvious that the meat and auto lobbies in these (fictional) scenarios have fundamentally misunderstood what the verb “advocate” means? The proper response by the CDC and the researchers should be that they are in no way advocating any such position. Rather, they are simply trying to determine the facts about the causes of heart disease or automobile deaths. This is obvious if we consider arguments such as the following:
People who eat meat are more likely to die of heart disease than people who do not eat meat. Therefore, people should not eat meat.
The conclusion simply doesn’t follow. Any normative argument (i.e., an argument whose conclusion is that we should or shouldn’t do something) depends on both descriptive claims and normative claims, such that you cannot derive a normative conclusion without a supporting normative premise (the argument from "Hume-said-it"). So, to make the above argument work, we’d have to add a normative premise, like this:
People who eat meat are more likely to die of heart disease than people who do not eat meat (descriptive claim). People shouldn’t do things that increase their risk of fatal diseases (normative claim). Therefore, people should not eat meat.
While this argument's validity is now apparent, so is its flaw. The second premise is false. It could be rational for an individual to continue to eat meat even knowing the increased risk of heart disease. If an individual really likes the taste of meat, they might decide that the risk of heart disease is worth it—that a life without meat would be worse for them than the risk of heart disease. But at least such a person could make an informed choice. Another, more health conscious, person who didn’t like meat quite as much might, given this same information, choose to no longer eat meat. Although the both individuals rely on the same facts here, they come to different conclusions about eating meat based on different normative premises regarding whether or not it is worth it, given their preferences, to eat meat. But my point is that this information, far from advocating against eating meat, simply gives individuals the ability to make informed choices. And that (at least on compatibilist accounts of freedom) is what it means to make free choices. Would it not be insane for the CDC to capitulate to the demands of the lobbies in these cases? Would it not be insane for the CDC to prohibit (by not funding) all research into the health effects of meat or driving cars?
Yet that is exactly what the CDC has done, under the pressure of the National Rifle Association (NRA), to all research regarding gun violence. As a recent On the Media podcast recounts, a 1993 CDC-funded study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that “keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide.” As you can imagine, the NRA didn’t like this and so they began to pressure congress, which eventuated in the passing of the 1996 Dickey Bill, which says “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.” This bill is still in place today and effectively (but not literally) bans any research on gun violence. Some years later, according to On the Media, the National Institutes of Health adopted essentially the same ban. As a result, there is dearth of research into the causes of gun violence, which is not only extremely unfortunate, but also absurd.
These bans are absurd not only because having this information is truly an issue of public health, but also because the research findings themselves wouldn’t at all settle the policy issue of what to do. Rather, it would simply allow us to make informed decisions. At it is, however, we can’t even do that. The NRA’s justification of the ban is that we shouldn’t allow publicly-funded research to advocate for any position (although it seems clear that they wouldn't have raised an issue had the research been perceived as supported their position). But in fact it seems that the ban itself is advocating, just in the opposite direction. And it is keeping us from obtaining vitally important information that we need to make informed decisions and move the debate about gun control forward. Without the research to back up their conflicting factual claims, it seems that the debate is doomed to stalemate. And that is bad all around: it is bad for the victims of gun violence, it is bad for gun rights advocates (since the research might actually support some of their factual claims), and it is bad for the democratic process.
To return to the 1993 NEJM article, the fact that there is an increased risk of homicide if a gun is kept in the house, doesn’t at all recommend a particular action. For some, who feel safer and more comfortable if a gun is in the house, the right choice could be to continue to keep a gun around, since the feeling of safety trumps the increased risk (sounds paradoxical, I know). For others, whose situation or feelings are different, this information may prompt them to get rid of the gun. In any case, there’s no advocacy in the mere stating of the empirical generalization. To get to advocacy, you need to defend a normative premise and presumably the scientific studies alone aren’t going to do that. For that we need public debate. But a public debate shorn of the facts is no debate at all.