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Letter to the Editor: Gun Crime Data a State Secret?

By Wayne Norris |

“Want to know specifics of gun crime data? Sorry, that’s a state secret.”

With so many allegations about gun safety and gun crimes swirling around, and competing plans to prevent future tragedies now in both Congress and the White House, wouldn’t you think armies of public and private analysts would be sifting through historical data to determine actual trends, rather than simply shouting cartoonish slogans at one another? I certainly would.

But if you did, you and I would be wrong. No one is doing that.

That’s because, incredibly, even though the data exists, that data is a state secret.

It’s not secret for the reasons nuclear weapons data is secret. It’s secret because of one law — the so-called “Tiahrt Amendment” — that makes it a crime for any U.S. government agency to spend even a penny assembling or releasing that data to anyone except a law enforcement officer investigating a specific crime. And if not a penny can be spent, no data can be released.

The Tiahrt Amendment was passed as a series of riders and amendments to congressional bills between 2003 and 2009 at the behest of the National Rifle Association. The NRA’s defense of its positions, available by clicking here, contains the usual laundry list of manufactured reasons why data collected at public expense should remain locked away. Tellingly, the first is, “Releasing the information serves no useful purpose. The Congressional Research Service has repeatedly said ‘firearm trace data may be biased’ … .”

Wow. I assume most people find that statement as preposterously disingenuous as I do after a long career as a research scientist. The presumption is that the same community of scientists who gave us flu vaccine, the Curiosity Rover and GPS satellites can’t distinguish data that may be biased (if, in fact, it actually is biased) from the good stuff, and fix the bias if it exists.

Really. Wow.

The NRA case is based around a disregard for scientists’ abilities to do actual research, leavened with a skepticism that government databases cannot be properly secured to protect private information such as names, while releasing relevant study data, such as gun calibers. If that were the case, we’d have no data on measles, food poisoning, faulty brakes on cars, or failed jackscrews on Boeing 727 horizontal stabilizers.

But we do.

I can get more and better data on nuclear weapons tests — including freely available simulation codes and blast data — than a criminology professor can get on gun crimes. If I suspect, for example, that blast overpresssure sensors for the Plumbbob/Diabloevent at the Nevada Test Site were systematically biased, I can make that correction to the data. A criminology professor suspecting, for example, that crazed shooters can be distracted by loud noises is totally out of luck.

What’s wrong with this picture?

A surprising number of the NRA’s public positions, including some of the most controversial, actually are arguable. Deliberate suppression of data is not one of them. It’s not credible to believe they actually think scientists are incapable of using such data properly. Shame on them for being so disingenuous.

It’s insulting for them to try to lie about their real motives. Shame on them for lying.

Wayne Norris
Santa Barbara




comments powered by Disqus

» on 01.23.13 @ 07:10 PM

In the interest of removing restrictions on access to data, the author should have included more factual data on supporters of the Tiahrt Amendment, which include law enforcement representatives who have experienced interference in investigations as a result of the release of gun trace data.

» on 03.02.13 @ 01:27 PM

I find you disingenuous Wayne.

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