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NIH Studies and Gun Control Fallacies

Written by James Heiser on October 20 2009.

More than a decade after Congress cut funding for firearms research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), another federal health agency has been spending millions of dollars to study such topics as whether teenagers who carry firearms run a different risk of getting shot compared with suffering other sorts of injuries.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also has been financing research to investigate whether having many liquor stores in a neighborhood puts people at greater risk of getting shot.

Such studies are coming under sharp scrutiny by Republican lawmakers who question whether the money could be better spent on biomedical research at a time of increasing competition for NIH funding. They're also leery of NIH research relating to firearms in general, recalling how 13 years ago the House voted to cut CDC funding when critics complained that the agency was trying to win public support for gun control.

"It's almost as if someone's been looking for a way to get this study done ever since the Centers for Disease Control was banned from doing it 10 years ago," Rep. Joe L. Barton, Texas Republican, said of one of the NIH studies. "But it doesn't make any more sense now than it did then."

The NIH, which administers more than $30 billion in taxpayer funds for medical research, defended the grants.

"Gun related violence is a public health problem — it diverts considerable health care resources away from other problems and, therefore, is of interest to NIH," Don Ralbovsky, NIH spokesman, wrote in an e-mail responding to questions about the grants.

"These particular grants do not address gun control; rather they deal with the surrounding web of circumstances involved in many violent crimes, especially how alcohol policy may reduce the public health burden from gun-related injury and death," he said.

There are several truly amazing aspects to the NIH study—one of which is the bold commitment to fallacy production. But before turning to that vital aspect of witnessing our tax dollars at work, your writer would be remiss in his duties if he did not first pause to reflect on the way in which the NIH is offering a classic example of hubris.

Given the “power of the purse” which the Constitution entrusts to the Congress, the decision of a federal agency to willfully flaunt the manifest intent of the representatives of the people who fund that same agency is breathtaking. Maybe those folks over at the CDC were cowed into submission by Congress, but clearly the public servants at the NIH are made of sterner stuff.

“Gun related violence is a public health problem,” says the NIH. Of course, bombs appear to have a similar health impact, so perhaps the NIH could help redefine the mission of the Department of Defense in keeping with health care concerns, and one might also observe that sunshine has been proven to cause skin cancer, so the NIH might well consider assuming control of NASA so that the space agency could have its mission updated to bring it in line with the nation’s happier, healthier agenda of the era of “hope and change.” After all, if the NIH is going to recast law enforcement in terms of health care, why not do the same thing with everything related to the various agencies of the government?

But let us consider the intent of the studies presently under consideration. Apparently the NIH “has been spending millions of dollars to study such topics as whether teenagers who carry firearms run a different risk of getting shot compared with suffering other sorts of injuries.” This type of study can provide a wide range of possibilities for fallacy construction if one astutely avoids looking at the reason why such teenagers are carrying firearms in the first place.

It is a little hard to figure out which fallacy will best flow from such a study. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, perhaps? Like the child who knows that the smell of bacon makes the sun come up because it happens every morning, one should be able to fairly quickly determine that if one has a lot of young people "packing heat" there’s a high probability that somebody is going to get shot — therefore, people carrying guns causes people to get shot. End of story.

Thus, it is important that the reason why the teenagers are carrying guns be left unexplored, because this allows for a further fallacy: ignoring a common cause. All the complicated human factors of hopelessness, the break-up of the home, the reasons for gang violence, and all the rest of dreadfully complicated motivations, actions, and perceptions which take place before someone decides carry a gun or to shoot someone can simply be ignored; we can easily conclude that since guns and teen violence regularly go together, the presence of firearms causes the violence.

However, even these fallacy-founding efforts are not sufficient for the overachievers at the NIH. “The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also has been financing research to investigate whether having many liquor stores in a neighborhood puts people at greater risk of getting shot.” Amazing! Not content to simply prove that the presence of liquor stories causes people to get drunk, now they are attempting to prove that the presence of such stores causes people to get drunk and shot.

For those who have not forgotten the fourteen-year-long federal "case study" on this topic — the Eighteenth Amendment — may remember that among the unintended consequences of the logical fallacies implicit in such efforts were gentlemen such as Al Capone, who provided lead and alcohol poisoning for a significant number of Americans.

But there are several fallacies which are foundational to all of the other logical fallacies explored above: that government studies can make people healthier, and regulations can make us better people. Regardless of the fate of these two NIH studies, do not expect either of these fallacies to go away anytime soon.


Rt. Rev. James Heiser has served as Pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Malone, Texas, while maintaining his responsibilities as publisher of Repristination Press, which he established in 1993 to publish academic and popular theological books to serve the Lutheran Church.  Heiser has also served since 2005 as the Dean of Missions for The Augustana Ministerium and in 2006 was called to serve as Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America (ELDoNA). An advocate of manned space exploration, Heiser serves on the Steering Committee of the Mars Society. His publications include two books; The Office of the Ministry in N. Hunnius' Epitome Credendorum (1996) and A Shining City on a Higher Hill: Christianity and the Next New World (2006), as well as dozens of journal articles and book reviews.

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