(USA TODAY) - While scientists have welcomed President Obama's efforts to restart gun-violence research, many say that passing even modest gun-safety measures will be an uphill battle.
That's because the gun lobby, researchers say, has followed a familiar and largely successful playbook: that of the tobacco companies.
Critics say the National Rifle Association, in its efforts to block gun-control laws it says are unconstitutional, has used many of the strategies pioneered by the tobacco lobby, at least until a national settlement with state attorneys general forced cigarette makers to change some of their ways. Those tactics include suppressing information, blocking research, targeting individual scientists and pushing for state laws that prohibit cities and counties from passing their own gun measures, says Mark Pertschuk, director of Grassroots Change, a national support network for public health movements.
"The gun lobby has been amazingly successful in keeping research from being done," says researcher Stanton Glantz, who obtained and published formerly secret documents from cigarette maker Brown & Williamson in 1994. Those documents showed that the industry had known for decades that smoking caused cancer, and had tried to stop research on tobacco's health effects. "That's important, because the tobacco companies were very early to understand the value of ignorance."
The NRA rejects such comparisons.
Unlike cigarettes, firearms are protected by the Second Amendment, says NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "I don't think that's a valid comparison - I don't even think it's a logical comparison," Arulanandam says. "Law-abiding Americans have a constitutional right to own a firearm."
Yet many public health leaders see strong parallels.
Like the NRA, cigarette companies "employed a scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners approach to threats to tobacco use," says Tom Glynn, director of cancer science and trends at the American Cancer Society, who spent two decades at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "They denied harm, publicly attacked any person or organization which questioned them, discredited science and brooked no compromise whatsoever - all tactics which the gun lobby seems to be using now."
Two weeks ago, President Obama addressed one of the gun lobby's tactics - a 17-year-old ban on research that could be used to "advocate or promote gun control" - by instructing scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NIH to immediately resume studying causes of and solutions to gun violence.
The NRA says it was protecting consumers' interests. "We worked to ensure taxpayer money wasn't being abused to pursue a political agenda," Arulanandam says. "We did not say 'no research for gun control.' But if you want to pursue a political agenda, you ought to go out and get independent funds like we do."
Whether Obama will be successful restarting the research may be in question, however. Only Congress can rewrite the language that brought about the ban. And Congress still control's the agency's funding.
Arulanandam said the NRA will vigorously protect gun owners' rights. "The strategy of the gun-control lobby is to throw everything at us simultaneously," he says. " We will respond accordingly, do whatever we can to ensure that common sense prevails."
Glantz notes that tobacco lobbyists delayed the Environmental Protection Agency's 1992 report on the dangers of secondhand smoke by 2½ years. The industry also churned out bogus research denying the dangers of tobacco.
Similarly, the gun lobby has deprived Americans of essential information about gun trafficking, according to a new report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
In 2003, the NRA persuaded Congress to restrict information from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives on drug trafficking, which once had been available publicly. The restrictions don't allow researchers to analyze important data, which might tell them how legal guns make their way into criminals' hands. The restrictions even limit how police can use the data, says David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
As a result of those restrictions, "We know more about the drug market than the gun market," Hemenway says. In terms of preventing accidents, and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, "We don't know what works and what doesn't work, because we haven't had large-scale studies."
Yet the gun lobby has sought protections that even the tobacco companies never achieved, Pertschuk says.
While the tobacco companies tried to demonize individual scientists, they never tried to pass laws interfering with what doctors talked about with their patients, Glantz says.
Yet today, the NRA supports state laws - such as a bill just introduced in the South Carolina legislature - that prevent doctors from asking about guns in a patient's home. Such "gag laws" infringe on physicians' freedom of speech and prevent them from discussing a major safety risk, says Judith Palfrey, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Seven states have considered such laws since 2007; only Florida has enacted one. Florida's law currently is in limbo, however, and awaiting a verdict by the U.S. Court of Appeals.
In 2005, Congress also gave the firearms industry broad immunity from liability, through the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. That has allowed courts to dismiss lawsuits filed by municipalities, which claimed that gun dealers did not adequately supervise their inventory and allowed weapons to fall into criminal hands, says attorney Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
The gun lobby has been even more successful than tobacco companies in limiting local action against guns, says Pertschuk, who previously led grass-roots campaigns at both Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights and Californians for Responsible Gun Laws.
Cigarette makers persuaded 20 states to pass pre-emption laws, which prohibited communities from approving smoking bans, Pertschuk says.
Forty-four states now have laws limiting or preventing local gun-control laws, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Only Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York have no laws expressly pre-empting local gun laws. Some state laws are stronger than others. California has a limited pre-emption law, for example, and courts have allowed many local laws to stand.
Toby Hoover is executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence (OCAGV).(Photo: Jay LaPrete for USA TODAY)
In Ohio, a 2006 pre-emption law nullified 80 local gun-control laws passed by 20 cities and counties, says Toby Hoover, executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence.
"When they (the NRA) saw we were being successful, when they got threatened by democracy by the people for the people, they put in a full press for pre-emption," Hoover says.
The NRA says pre-emption policies provide consistency across a state.
"Rather than having a person who crosses one county line to another and finds themselves all of the sudden in violation of a city ordinance, it's best if there's a set of uniform laws that people can easily understand and easily adhere to," Arulanandam said. "When there's a patchwork of laws, it only serves to confuse law-abiding people."
But stripping a community of its right to make its own laws is crushing - both to residents and future leaders, says Hoover, noting that most activists cut their teeth on local issues before progressing to state and national causes.
"If people really want to make change and get involved where it makes a difference, they want to do it locally," says Hoover, 70, whose husband was shot and killed during a robbery in 1973. "When you take that away from them, they feel like, 'There is nothing I can do.'"