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Shawn Vestal: Maybe cities can take lead on gun violence

Sat., July 12, 2014, midnight

Among the many ways in which gun extremists are holding the country hostage is the 18-year blackout on federal funding for research into gun violence.

But if Congress can’t take the most reasonable, the most sane, the most obvious of baby steps – merely studying gun violence, say, or closing the gaping gun show loophole – then maybe there’s another source of sanity out there.

City councils.

The Seattle City Council recently commissioned a University of Washington study of King County hospitalizations for gun injuries – finding that those with gunshot injuries are much more likely to suffer further gunshot in the future and more likely to be arrested later for a violent crime. Meanwhile, representatives of Spokane’s City Council are talking with state officials about crafting agreements that would allow the state to join an expanded national database of violent crimes, to help improve the nationwide tracking of the causes and circumstances of violence.

Research into gun violence plummeted after a 1996 law passed Congress outlawing any studies that might “advocate” for gun control. The law followed, more or less directly, a study that found that gun ownership was associated with a higher risk of homicide in the home, a conclusion the National Rifle Association did not appreciate.

In practice, this has meant all federally funded research evaporated – apparently, knowledge is an end-run violation of the Second Amendment. Since then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has had an annual budget of zero to study the 30,000-plus gun deaths annually in America. President Obama ordered the CDC to resume firearms research last year, but the law remains in place and a lot of questions remain.

To put this into perspective: We spend $2 million a year studying falls among the elderly, which killed 21,700 people in 2010. We spend $10.6 million studying Lyme disease, which killed 22,014 people in 2010.

The Seattle City Council-commissioned study was limited, for sure – tracking 222 people who were hospitalized in King County for firearms injuries in 2006-07. Through 2012, those people were 30 times more likely than those hospitalized for other reasons to be injured with a firearm again; they were also more likely to later be arrested for a violent crime themselves. The data don’t offer a simple solution – there is no simple solution, of course – but researchers and City Council members said it could suggest a population and a place where some combination of creative, preventive efforts might be targeted.

Meanwhile, Spokane’s City Council is in discussions with the state Department of Health over seeking grant funding to join the National Violent Death Reporting System. The NVDRS is a standardized assembly of the causes and consequences of violence in America, and it is a perfectly suitable example of the ignorance under which we proceed when it comes to guns: Just 18 states are a part of it now, and 11 more are to be added.

It is crazy, is it not, that having such a resource for all 50 states wasn’t something we did years ago? But hey – baby steps.

Councilman Jon Snyder has been involved in discussions with the state about applying for a grant. The effort will require cities to sign agreements to share the data they’re already collecting.

Snyder, who felt the ire of gundamentalists last year when he merely proposed a resolution supporting some gun-safety legislation, called the opposition to research on gun deaths “one of the perplexing things in the national discussion on weapons and weaponry.”

“It’s kind of like addressing cancer by not studying it,” he said.

Tuesday’s murder-suicide at Deaconess Hospital provided a tragic context for this discussion. As local officials consider such events, it would be useful to understand more about them, and to know more specifically about other kinds of violent deaths. Currently, you can look up crime statistics in one place, or look up causes of death in another silo of information, but a comprehensive set of information about the varieties of violence and the way guns play a role would allow local jurisdictions to evaluate and analyze what’s happening.

“We could compile our own data, but I want to know how we compare to other Washington cities and other cities our size,” Snyder said. “I’d like to know how we compare to Des Moines on this.”

Such a simple idea. Counting what happens and how often, and then looking at it. Thinking about it. Considering the possibility that some gun violence might be preventable. This is precisely what the NRA and its minions do not want, preferring a national mental blackout and simplistic assertions.

Tuesday’s hospital shooting provided a quick, sad example of this. The very first post on a local TV station’s very first report about the news of the shooting:

“And oh joy, another reason for Liberals to attack guns, not the idiot in possession of the firearm.”

Two dead, and there’s the first response. A rush to the ramparts. A woman is killed – and it’s guns that are being attacked. A place of healing is violated – and it’s guns that must be defended. Will there come a time when people are simply too embarrassed to say such things? More importantly, will there come a time when such dumbness does not reflect the winning argument in our national politics?

We’re not there yet. If Washington, D.C., can’t manage it, maybe cities can lead.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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