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Letters
December 6, 2000

Impact of the Brady Act on Homicide and Suicide Rates—Reply

Author Affiliations
 

Stephen J.LurieMD, PhD, Senior EditorIndividualAuthorPhil B.FontanarosaMD, Executive Deputy EditorIndividualAuthor

JAMA. 2000;284(21):2718-2721. doi:10.1001/jama.284.21.2717

In Reply: Dr Bennett provocatively equates the legislative process to that by which medical treatments are determined safe and effective. By the standard of the medical model, according to Bennett, lawmakers have the process backward: first they should assess the efficacy and "unintended consequences" of proposed legislation, then, and only then, should they implement new law. Therefore, because it reverses the evidentiary standard of the medical model, Bennett rejects as a "disservice to society" my conclusion that current research evidence does not warrant altering Brady Act–type regulations on the sale of firearms.

Bennett wishes legislators would behave more like physicians and less like lawyers, but if medical researchers were cast in the role of lawmakers, they would be subject to the temptations and constraints inherent in the role. The contribution of empirical research to the legislative process is necessarily limited, not because lawyers make the laws but because law making is a fundamentally political act. Before wishing otherwise, Bennett might want to contemplate the fate of representative government were the legislatures filled with nothing but researchers. Empirical research does on occasion influence the legislative process, but typically after the fact and always by way of political mobilization. The political nature of the legislative process means that research findings will be put to selective use and open to conflicting interpretation, no matter whether the research precedes or follows the legislation. With respect to contentious issues such as firearms regulation, one party's palliative will be another's poison.

My reading of the available evidence suggests that the Brady Act is neither panacea nor poison. It may reduce suicide rates, and until studies model the effects of Brady Act–type regulations on the secondary firearms market, where most criminal offenders obtain their guns, its influence on homicide rates will not be known. There may be reasons to repeal the Brady Act, but they rest on normative and political premises immune to scientific assessment.

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