Balancing a loaded topic

Guns and gun control tend to bring out strong opinions in people. That's not surprising. Gun ownership remains a complicated aspect of American culture and the stakes can be pretty high.

But it can make objective analysis hard to find. 

Both sides of the debate suspect the other side wants to upend their way of life. One side frets over "gun-happy" shooting enthusiasts while the other decries "freedom-hating" liberal lawmakers. Gun rhetoric ratchets up quickly and paranoia often creeps in.

Some people fixate on the semantics between "assault rifle" and "modern sporting rifle" while others tout studies slanted in their favor.

The Violence Police Center has been described as "nonpartisan" — but while it may not claim a political party, it certainly supports gun control with studies titled, "Blood Money: How the Gun Industry Bankrolls the NRA." On the other side, the National Shooting Sports Federation also puts out "Fact Sheets" warning an assault weapons ban could lead to additional prohibitions on any firearms.

New online resources have also played into the recent discussion with a stripped-down site claiming to offer the unvarnished "Truth about Assault Weapons." The click-through site starts basic enough, but quickly devolves into gun rights advocacy that selectively quotes gun research.

On the other hand, the White House has now launched its fancy "Now is the Time" website, emphasizing the importance of tougher gun regulations.

So how do you find the middle? This can be a challenge if you happen to be writing something like this week's cover story on the AR-15 rifle.

A few reports incorporate data and testimony from both sides to form a more balanced analysis. The U.S. Congress commissioned a report on gun control earlier this year in response to the shooting in Aurora, Colo. 

"To gun control advocates, the opposition is out of touch with the times, misinterprets the Second Amendment, and is lacking in concern for the problems of crime and violence," the Congressional report states. "To gun control opponents, advocates are naive in their faith in the power of regulation to solve social problems, bent on disarming the American citizen for ideological or social reasons, and moved by irrational hostility toward firearms and gun enthusiasts."

Sounds about right. 

Another government report often cited by both sides is the Department of Justice review of the 1994 assault weapons ban. Gun rights supporters often point to the DOJ report to prove banning assault rifles failed. The report notes just 2 percent of crimes were committed with assault weapons.

"Should it be renewed, the ban's effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement," the DOG report states. "[Assault weapons] were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban."

However, gun advocates also fail to mention the report's heavy criticism for the many loopholes in the ban that allowed millions of assault-type weapons to remain on the streets, undermining any real way to measure its impact. They also overlook the report's criticism of semiautomatic weapons in general.

"[R]educing criminal use of [assault weapons] and especially [large-capacity magazines] could have non-trivial effects on gunshot victimizations," the report determines. "The few available studies suggest that attacks with semiautomatics — including [assault weapons] and other semiautomatics equipped with [large-capacity magazines] — result in more shots fired, more persons hit, and more wounds inflicted per victim that do attacks with other firearms."

It pays to read the entire report.

One of the first steps President Obama announced Wednesday to address gun violence was to revive government support for studying the connections between guns and violence. The Washington Post and The New Yorker both wrote yesterday about how research can play an important role in shaping the debate. (They draw from a 2011 New York Times story about how the NRA has lobbied against gun research.)

Maybe future research can help answer important questions about gun violence. Both sides should embrace a better understanding of this issue — because if you feel that strongly that you're right, why be afraid of the debate?