Academics, guns, and the silencing of debate

Academics, guns, and the silencing of debate: musings from a gun-owning researcher in a ‘liberal science institution’

As ‘evidence based policy’ has become a catch-cry, the interplay between politics, policy, and research has intensified.

In an ideal world, this would foster open and honest debate about contentious issues like firearms legislation, driven by a search for knowledge and willingness to admit that what seemed like a good idea in theory may not have translated effectively into practice.

Sadly, evidence is often retrofitted to justify decisions long since taken. Politicians score easy headlines by trotting out studies, written by grandly titled academics, that ‘coincidentally’ agree with their pet position and sneeringly condemn other perspectives.

Research too easily becomes another tool in the kitbag of spin and manipulation used to defend poor policies driven by ideology and short-term political gain.

In an ideal world, this would fail. Alternative evidence would be considered, debate would follow, and dissent would be welcomed by academics, journalists and politicians alike as a necessary step towards government accountability and high quality policy.

We do not live in an ideal world.

Research is controlled almost exclusively by academics, many of whom – when it comes to firearms – seem unable to live up to the spirit of critical enquiry and fearless argument that should characterise their vocation.

Over my years researching firearms policy, I have documented preferential publication of ‘anti-gun’ findings, attempted and actual censorship, and efforts to destroy the credibility of researchers who rock the boat.

Consider the strident anti-gun researcher who put out a paper in an academic public health journal. He made several misleading statements about my own work. Naively assuming the journal would encourage robust debate and follow the time-honoured principle of allowing a ‘right of response’, I set out to correct the record.

The journal’s editor refused to publish my reply. So the record stands uncorrected, with unchallenged half-truths and outright deceptions that continue to be deliberately promoted by anti-gun lobbyists.

Consider an ex-academic-turned-Labor-MP, who puffed and blew that anyone who questions the impact of Australia’s 1996 gun laws is an “NRA shill”.

By his bizarre logic, individuals like the director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research – who obviously dislikes firearms, but nonetheless openly questions the impact of the laws – are simply mouthpieces for the US gun lobby, and (presumably) should be ignored.

From an ex-academic who failed to declare his relationships with anti-gun lobbyists, but who claims to value scientific endeavour and open debate, this is grossly hypocritical.

It also shows that vilification and smear campaigns to silence questioning are considered perfectly acceptable when it comes to guns, while critical enquiry is not.

Consider a Professor of Psychology’s email:

“Just when one starts to feel that the human character, as exemplified by the stream of nerd murderers throwing tantrums with ‘legal’ warfare weapons and the usual wake of gun lobby apologists that follow, is so appalling that we may as well all give up, you bob up. Women for shooting (or whatever)??? Working as an academic in a liberal science institution devoted to the betterment of humanity?? Lordy mama.

Please ….please can you try to refrain from or at least minimise your public posturing in the name of guns; it is so depressing and an appalling representation of science, ethics, reason, humanity and our profession – all you are meant to stand for.”

It is disappointing, but unsurprising, that he insists academic employment should mandate conformity of thought and action, and blind acceptance of whatever dogma happens to be fashionable at a particular point in time. This is the exact opposite of what good academics strive for.

Disapproval does not affect my work (aside from motivating me to continue asking inconvenient questions), but would I be so untroubled if I had just started working in research? Or if I feared an attack on my reputation? Or if my prospects of career advancement or having my research published or obtaining funding rested on staying on the good side of this gentleman and his similarly minded associates?

Self-censorship and silence would start looking good – as they have to other Australian researchers who have been bullied into staying quiet about guns.

There are many examples, but these make the point. Regarding research and firearms, academics are too often part of the problem of bad policy, not the solution. The result is impoverished public debate, where ill-conceived policies are shielded from much-needed scrutiny.

This begs one glaringly unanswered question: if those who single-mindedly cling to anti-gun rhetoric are so sure they are right, and backed by such credible evidence, then why are they so terribly, terribly afraid of being challenged?

Dr Samara McPhedran is Chair of the International Coalition for Women in Shooting and Hunting (WiSH). She also holds a PhD in Psychology and is a senior research fellow at Griffith University. She has published several peer-reviewed articles examining the impacts of Australia’s gun laws.




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