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Culture War Roundup for the week of December 12, 2022

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The Reload reports: (previous discussions here, here, and indirectly here).

The Center For Disease Control (CDC) deleted a reference to a study it commissioned after a group of gun-control advocates complained it made passing new restrictions more difficult.

The lobbying campaign spanned months and culminated with a private meeting between CDC officials and three advocates last summer, a collection of emails obtained by The Reload show. Introductions from the White House and Senator Dick Durbin’s (D., Ill.) office helped the advocates reach top officials at the agency after their initial attempt to reach out went unanswered. The advocates focused their complaints on the CDC’s description of its review of studies that estimated defensive gun uses (DGU) happen between 60,000 and 2.5 million times per year in the United States–attacking criminologist Gary Kleck’s work establishing the top end of the range.

“[T]hat 2.5 Million number needs to be killed, buried, dug up, killed again and buried again,” Mark Bryant, one of the attendees, wrote to CDC officials after their meeting. “It is highly misleading, is used out of context and I honestly believe it has zero value – even as an outlier point in honest DGU discussions.”

Bryant, who runs the Gun Violence Archive (GVA), argued Kleck’s estimate has been damaging to the political prospects of passing new gun restrictions and should be eliminated from the CDC’s website.

This isn't the first time the CDC has papered over a study giving politically undesirable answers -- it's not even the first time doing so for a Kleck paper, though at least that one had the fig leaf that Kleck misread the survey scope.

But the discussion here is unusually damning. It's possible that Devin Hughes, the guy signing many of the initial e-mails here, genuinely believes his argument that only the defensive gun uses that make it into the tiny fraction of media and police reports GVPedia has access to 'counts'. If so it's not really a defense of his logic or math, which rests on the claim that no one has found more 'confirmed' defensive gun uses than the Gun Violence Archive, when nearly everyone, including other anti-gun groups, come away from this topic with higher counts. Instead, there's a lot of evidence that GVA finds it appalling -- and could compel the CDC -- merely on the spectre that someone might reference the different numbers and might not submit to the GVA's policy goals.

To their credit, the CDC's people did not immediately fold on the topic; their initial responses are polite, but point to other reasonable interpretations of data. Against their credit, this interest faded after an unrecorded or unFOIAable Teams meeting, set up by the strongly anti-gun Senator Durbin, including the CDC's Acting Principle Deputy Director, with the Teams Meeting on either September 15th or 16th, and basically no FOIA'able discussion after that. There was no discussion in this discovery looking to talk to any of the many researchers finding higher numbers. Nor was there any point where the CDC attempted to ask Kleck -- who is on record saying the CDC has not, so it can't merely be a FOIA foible.

Worse, while playing games with FOIA redactions has long been a boogeyman of ... basically every political activist group, here we see :

“A few of just met with the CEO of the Gun Violence Archive yesterday – Mark Bryant,” he wrote. “Odd that they would be connected to the Newtown Action Alliance!”

The CDC attempted to redact Mercy’s comment about the tie between GVA and the gun-control group, but it only applied the redaction to one of the several copies of the exchange included in the release. (The agency also failed to redact the emails and phone numbers of many of those included in the release. The Reload has redacted the non-public contact information that was left exposed.)

Incompetence, perhaps? But in addition to the pages that are redacted in full under the poorly-defined b5 exceptions (probably the 'internal deliberations' prong) to FOIA, as was the above exclamation of surprise about Bryant's NAA links, it's also noticeable what isn't there are all.

Notably, Hughes claimed to have attached a slide deck from that Teams meeting. Maybe he forgot it, and missed the Outlook/Mozilla warning? But probably not. I doubt there's anything amazing in there, but in turn it's hard to imagine anything present that could not or should not be disclosed. Maybe they had a genuinely compelling argument! But if it's the same already-refused arguments repeated, it would look a lot more like the CDC's higher-ups are driven by the influence of a Senator and the White House than by anything in the data.

It's also worth spelling out one part of the process to find this, which is somewhat unusually public. MorosKostas begun the FOIA process in June, after reading a The Trace article a couple days earlier mentioning the removal had happened sometime in April. (Notably, Hughes from above is a former Trace employee.) He only got the response on December 12th. This... leaves some !!fun!! questions about political accountability; even if this particular example would not matter, five months is a significant portion of even today's extended political seasons.

((Not that it would or could matter for Durbin; for his state, this is a nothingburger, or even a bonus.))

More broadly, though, this points to a greater issue with the death of expertise. There are increasing campaigns to open up the CDC for gun violence research, often countered by gun owners pointing out a tendency for the organization to be captured by political forces, and it's hard to see this as anything but a poster child for that problem. Worse, you can point to the existing version of the page, which now reads:

Estimates of defensive gun use vary depending on the questions asked, populations studied, timeframe, and other factors related to study design. Given the wide variability in estimates, additional research is necessary to understand defensive gun use prevalence, frequency, circumstances, and outcomes.

Emphasis added. If they ask the question enough, perhaps they'll get the answers the political activists want -- and if not, they can ask for money to try again.

Could one find a better example of mission creep and infinite expansion of the bureaucracy than the CDC? The early history of the organization has a mission that I think makes sense for a federal entity:

The Communicable Disease Center was founded July 1, 1946, as the successor to the World War II Malaria Control in War Areas program[8] of the Office of National Defense Malaria Control Activities.[9]


An Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) was established in 1951, originally due to biological warfare concerns arising from the Korean War; EIS evolved into two-year postgraduate training program in epidemiology, and a prototype for Field Epidemiology Training Programs (FETP), which began in 1980.[16] The FETP is a large operation that has trained more than 18,000 disease detectives in over 80 countries. In 2020 FETP celebrated the 40th anniversary of the CDC's support for Thailand's Field Epidemiology Training Program. Thailand was the first FETP site created outside of North America and is found in numerous countries, reflecting CDC's influence in promoting this model internationally.[17] The Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network (TEPHINET) has graduated 950 students.[18]

The mission of the CDC expanded beyond its original focus on malaria to include sexually transmitted diseases when the Venereal Disease Division of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) was transferred to the CDC in 1957. Shortly thereafter, Tuberculosis Control was transferred (in 1960) to the CDC from PHS, and then in 1963 the Immunization program was established.[19]

This all seems reasonable enough - the whole point of federal agencies is to handle difficult coordination problems where state-level agencies or even interstate compacts would prove insufficient. Thinking about epidemiology, it makes sense for that to be national. Unfortunately, as these things tend to do, it continued to outgrow the role of handling communicable diseases:

An act of the United States Congress appended the words "and Prevention" to the name effective October 27, 1992. However, Congress directed that the initialism CDC be retained because of its name recognition.[21] Since the 1990s, the CDC focus has broadened to include chronic diseases, disabilities, injury control, workplace hazards, environmental health threats, and terrorism preparedness.

So, as government agencies do, it moved from the original role into providing questionable dietary advice, risk-averse guidance on how to have a safe workplace, and (naturally) some opinions on racism. They kept the title Centers for Disease Control purely for branding purposes, long beyond their purview went well beyond what anyone would consider a "disease".