The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) removed data on guns from its website after holding a private meeting with gun control activists, according to newly disclosed emails.
The CDC webpage titled “Fast Facts: Firearm Violence Prevention” includes a portion on defensive gun use, or instances when people use guns for defensive purposes.
The portion defines defensive gun use and originally stated: “Estimates of defensive gun use vary depending on the questions asked, populations studied, timeframe, and other factors related to the design of studies. The report Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence indicates a range of 60,000 to 2.5 million defensive gun uses each year.”
The page now says: “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.”
The change happened under pressure from several activists, the emails show.
Several weeks after the page was published, in 2021, Devin Hughes, president and founder of GVPedia, emailed the CDC expressing concern with the 2.5 million estimate.
Hughes said the figure stemmed from surveys that have “fatal flaws,” and that the figure comes from a report that was published in 2013, before the Gun Violence Archive began providing data. That archive only estimates about 2,000 defensive gun use instances per year. He urged the CDC to “revisit and update” the defensive gun use portion of the webpage.
Hughes apparently did not receive a response, so he forwarded his message to Po Murray, chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance. Murray sent the message to White House officials.
Hannah Bristol, with the White House Office of Public Engagement, answered after consulting with the CDC.
“CDC reviewed many studies for the estimates used for this range in the fact sheet and an update is not warranted at this time,” Bristol said.
Internally, Linda Dahlberg with the CDC also said the criticism didn’t hold weight.
“We stand behind our fact sheet, which essentially points out that estimates of defensive gun use vary depending on the data source, questions asked, populations studied, timeframes, and other factors related to the design of studies,” Dahlberg said. She listed 13 data sources.
Hughes pushed back, saying that he disagreed that the Gun Violence Archive only represents a small subset of people who used guns defensively.
“I would strongly urge the CDC to consider revising the factsheet to add further context, or at the very least removing the DGU section until better data emerges,” he wrote. “I would be more than happy to meet virtually to further discuss the research surrounding DGUs and how best to correct the misinformation in the Factsheet.”
That led to a meeting involving Hughes, Murray, Mark Bryant, executive director of the Gun Violence Archive, and three top CDC officials: Deb Houry, the CDC’s acting principal deputy director; Thomas Simon, associate director of science for the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention; and Elizabeth Reimels, associate director for policy, partnerships, and strategic communication at the division.
The meeting took place on Sept. 15, 2021, and lasted about 30 minutes.
The emails were obtained by Konstadinos Moros, a lawyer representing the California Rifle & Pistol Association, through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and reviewed by The Epoch Times. They were first reported by The Reload.
Emails After the Meeting
After the meeting, Hughes wrote: “Thank you for taking the time to meet with us. We deeply appreciate it.”
He said that he showed slides during the meeting that detailed problems with the defensive gun use estimate, particularly the estimate of up to 2.5 million uses per year. The slides were not included in the documents, some of which were redacted.
Hughes also said that he hoped “this is the beginning of the conversation.”
“Thank you for sharing this,” Simon responded. “We also appreciate the opportunity to talk with you, Po, and Mark and the time that you put into the summary you provided.”
Bryant acknowledged that the defensive use instances logged by Gun Violence Archive, which Hughes had cited, are an undercount “because there is a propensity to just not report incidents that don’t have someone shot or killed” but that the 2.5 million instances per year had been “debunked repeatedly,” including by Gary Kleck, the researcher from whose study the number came.
Kleck disagreed, telling The Epoch Times via email that he has “systematically rebutted every single criticism” of the higher defensive gun use (DGU) estimates, pointing to a 2015 op-ed he wrote, and that “critics have simply ignored the rebuttals.”
“Virtually all flaws in surveys known to scholars work to produce underestimates of the frequency of crime-related experiences (see first attached article), so the notion that DGU is overestimated at all, never mind grossly overestimated, is wildly out of line with scholarly knowledge of survey research,” he added.
As Kleck has noted, CDC surveys from the late 1990s—defensive gun questions haven’t been included since—estimated about 1.1 million defensive gun use incidents per year. One of his most recent papers, going over the CDC survey results, also examined approximately 18 other surveys and found an estimate of 500,000 to 5.2 million DGUs per year.
A CDC spokesperson told The Epoch Times via email: “Science leads all CDC decisions. Our goal is to present the science and the data objectively and in language that is easy to understand.”
The CDC came to determine that the initially listed range of DGUs was “not easily understandable and may be outdated.”
“CDC removed both numbers—the low and high estimates—from the fact sheet and acknowledged that additional research is necessary to understand defensive gun use prevalence, frequency, circumstances, and outcomes,” the spokesperson said. “CDC does not advocate for or against gun policies. CDC engages with a wide variety of partners every day. It is not unusual for partners to be connected to the agency through members of Congress or the White House. In the past year alone, CDC has met with a number of organizations interested in the topic of firearm injury and violence prevention—including gun rights organizations, gun violence prevention organizations, public health organizations, and medical societies.”
The FOIA request asked for all documents relating to the CDC’s decision to edit the gun fast facts page. None of the documents that were returned showed any meetings or discussion with gun rights groups or anybody outside of the gun control activists.
Houry and Simon did not respond to requests for comment. Reimels declined to comment.
Some CDC officials didn’t know why a change would be needed.
“I mean all we say on the fact sheet essentially is that you get different estimates of defensive gun use depending on the methods you use to measure it and then point to the National Academy report,” James Mercey, a researcher in the Division of Violence Prevention, wrote to Reimels. “Hard to argue against that. What do you think the concern is with this? Or is it something else?”
Reimels later told the Hughes, Bryant, and Murray that the CDC was planning to update the fact sheet in early 2022 “after the release of some new data.”
“We will also make some edits to the content we discussed that I think will address the concerns you and other partners have raised,” she added.
The webpage was changed in May, The Trace reported.
No reason was given publicly for the change.
Simon told a colleague in one of the newly disclosed emails that “we simplified the text to defensive gun use,” noting that the original text “provided an estimate” of the annual instances.
“I initially submitted this FOIA request back in June because I was suspicious of the CDC’s motivation for editing their website as to defensive gun use survey statistics. The fact that the changes resulted from an extensive pressure campaign by anti-gun advocates is disappointing but not surprising,” Moros told The Epoch Times via email. “When people ask why the gun rights community is skeptical of more funding to the CDC to research gun crime, I hope they remember this incident. The CDC has sadly become too politicized to be trusted.”
Bryant, Hughes, and Murray all advocate for stricter gun laws.
The Gun Violence Archive says it is not an advocacy group and that its mission is “to document incidents of gun violence and gun crime nationally to provide independent, verified data to those who need to use it in their research, advocacy or writing.”
But Bryant described himself as part of the “GVP community” in his email to the CDC. GVA stands for gun violence prevention.
“Until proof if [sic] available we in the GVP community respectfully request that this outlier that has been used so often to stop legislation be removed until a panel can build a fair survey which will better reflect the true status of the number of” defensive gun use, Bryant wrote.
The archive did not return a request for comment.
Both Hughes and GVPedia have promoted gun control legislation. The Newtown Action Alliance wants to ban so-called assault weapons, cut gun manufacturers off from insurance, and stop members of Congress from carrying guns on U.S. Capitol grounds.
“If you don’t support an assault weapons ban then you support arming mass shooters,” Murray said in one statement on social media.
Kleck told The Epoch Times that high DGU estimates don’t threaten “moderate gun control measures like background checks, which only restrict guns among small high-risk subsets of the population like convicted criminals.”
“High DGU estimates, on the other hand, would present serious problems for those who support prohibitionist measures that would disarm all or most civilians, since such estimates would imply serious costs to disarming all or most prospective crime victims,” he added.