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Critical Thinking Resources for Gun Issues
Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

The Brady Campaign is the most recent iteration of a gun-control group formed in 1974. The organization took its current name in 2001 from Jim and Sarah Brady. Jim Brady, press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, was shot and seriously injured in a 1981 assassination attempt on the president.

The Brady Campaign describes itself as “the nation’s largest, non-partisan, grassroots organization leading the fight to prevent gun violence.” The group is really two organizations: The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and The Brady Campaign. The Campaign lobbies on gun laws and gets involved in politics to help elect candidates who share its views. The Center focuses more on using the court system to achieve its goals and represents victims of gun violence and others.

The group gives scores to states depending on whether they have certain gun-control measures in place. Its summaries of what states have done in these areas are generally solid and up-to-date, and much more usable for the casual researcher than statutory language.

Comments: The Brady Campaign's pro-gun control perspective is counter to that of the National Rifle Association.

Political Leanings: Liberal, pro-gun control

Bureau of Justice Statistics

The Bureau of Justice Statistics is a data collection arm of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs. Founded in 1979, the bureau collects and analyzes statistics related to the nation’s justice system.

Its website provides detailed information on crime, criminal offenders and victims of crime, and also contains reports on special topics, such as homicide trends and firearm sales. The raw data for the bureau's material comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, the National Incident-Based Reporting System and other federal agencies. The bureau lists related websites, some of which also provide valuable statistics on the justice system.

The bureau supports the Criminal Justice Sourcebook, which brings together data from more than 100 sources, including the bureau. The site is updated frequently and is a repository for more than 1,000 tables and historical data dating back to 1994.

Comments: The Bureau of Justice Statistics is a trusted source for facts and figures pertinent to federal, state and local crime and the justice system.

Cato Institute

The Cato Institute describes its work as broadening public-policy debate on “individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.” For the last decade, Cato has supported Social Security reform through private accounts and championed deregulation of the drug industry. Cato was founded in 1977 by Edward H. Crane, a chartered financial analyst and former vice president of Alliance Capital Management Group. Most of Cato’s funding comes from private foundations and individuals, with only a small amount from corporations.

Cato is thought of as a libertarian think tank, and its scholars tend to argue for free markets and against taxes and government regulation. It  also strongly rejects government infringement on individual rights.

Cato’s publications and reports can be explored by research area, which include defense and national security, constitutional issues, and a variety of domestic issues. The institute hosts a separate site focusing on Social Security.

Comments: Cato's research is thorough and well-documented, and advances a libertarian agenda.

Political Leanings: Libertarian

Center for American Progress

Founded in 2003 by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, the Center for American Progress describes itself as “progressive.” Many of its experts once worked in Democratic presidential administrations or for Democrats on Capitol Hill. According to its website, the center seeks to “combine bold policy ideas with a modern communications platform to help shape the national debate, expose the hollowness of conservative governing philosophy, and challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter.”

The center's focus covers a wide range of issues, including energy, health care, the economy, civil rights, immigration, welfare and others.
Unlike many think tanks, the center has a lobbying and advocacy offshoot, called the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The Action Fund describes itself as “the sister advocacy organization of the Center for American Progress.”

Comments: The center's website reflects its strong liberal bent.

Congressional Research Service

The Library of Congress houses the Congressional Research Service, “the public policy research arm of the United States Congress.” The CRS performs independent, nonpartisan and objective research for members of Congress and their staffs on a nearly endless array of issues. The Librarian of Congress appoints the director of the service, which has a large, knowledgeable staff and receives a sizable budget.

The CRS no longer releases its reports to the general public, but many can be found fairly easily online. The U.S. State Department and independent groups, including the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and the National Council for Science and the Environment post the full text of some CRS reports relating to each group’s area of interest. The Open CRS Network website has a search engine that combines the resources of several, though not all, of these sites. The public can also purchase reports from some websites. And if time permits, individuals can request paper copies of specific reports directly from their senator or representative.

The CRS is acclaimed for its objective and thorough analyses. Authors are aware that they are writing for an audience that includes both Republicans and Democrats, and they are meticulous about avoiding partisanship.

Consumer Federation of America

The CFA, formed in 1968, acts on behalf of consumers through “advocacy, research, education, and service.” The group has 300 member organizations – all nonprofit, pro-consumer groups. The CFA encourages federal and state officials to adopt pro-consumer policies, and it supports grassroots consumer movements and consumer cooperatives. Its Food Policy Institute advocates for a “safer, healthier and more affordable food supply.”

The group investigates a range of consumer issues in the areas of communications, energy, finance, food and agriculture, health and safety, and housing. Brochures, studies, fact sheets and testimony before government entities are available online, including material on legislative activity related to the group’s goals as well as ratings of cars based on their fuel economy. It is a voice for consumers generally vis-a-vis insurance companies, banks and credit-rating agencies, among other entities. The majority of the group’s income comes from corporate and private foundation grants. Membership dues and revenue from CFA conferences account for 15 percent of funding.

Comments: The CFA favors increased government regulation of industry, consumer products and the food supply.

Political Leanings: Liberal

FactCheck.org

According to its website, FactCheck.org is a “nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” Its staff monitors factual accuracy in American politics, looking at what’s being said in TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and the like.

The website has three main outlets for its work: Articles, the FactCheck Wire (for shorter items or ones of less national interest) and Ask FactCheck (in which the group’s staff members answer questions sent in by readers, often about chain e-mails on political subjects). The group debunks myths, falsehoods and exaggerations by politicians and outside groups involved in election campaigns and public policy debates. Examples of FactCheck.org’s work include stories about misinformation spread during public policy debates such as the one on overhauling the health care system, and inaccurate claims made during election campaigns such as John McCain’s position on
Medicare or Barack Obama’s birthplace. The group’s work is often cited by other media organizations.

FactCheck.org is funded by, and is a project of, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which was established by the Annenberg Foundation with a $20 million endowment in 1993. The Annenberg Foundation also made additional grants to support FactCheck.org’s work. The APPC accepts no funding from business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations or individuals. In 2010, FactCheck.org began accepting donations from individual members of the public. Its does not accept any funds from corporations, unions, partisan organizations or advocacy groups.

Political Leanings: None

Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation, one of the nation’s best-known think tanks on the right, says its mission is to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

Heritage scholars generally argues for lower taxes, less spending for social programs and less government regulation of business. When Heritage criticizes Republicans it is often for being too liberal: It supported President Bush’s first-term tax cuts, for example, but criticized his expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs.

Comments: Facts cited by Heritage are generally solid and well-documented, though quite often they reflect only one side of an ideological debate.

Political Leanings: Strongly conservative

Librarians’ Internet Index

Librarians’ Internet Index is a compendium of links and descriptions of websites that have been selected by a team of librarians. Publicly funded by the states of California and Washington, the site includes more than 20,000 entries that focus on a host of topics, from politics and legal issues to film and sports. LII is produced by six paid consultants who are assisted by more than 40 librarian contributors.

Started by a reference librarian in the early 1990s, LII is now under the management of the Peninsula Library System, a consortium of public and community college libraries in California. In 2002, the site launched a more limited partnership with Washington State Library, and it offers numerous websites of interest to those two states. Most of LII’s money comes from the California State Library, but site managers have been exploring other funding sources.

Users can subscribe to a free weekly newsletter that highlights various websites. It’s also possible to search the site or browse the links by 14 main topic areas and hundreds of subtopics. Visitors can narrow each list of sites by clicking on additional topics. The websites that LII features must meet various criteria, which include whether information is available for free and whether it’s credible.

Comments: LII is a valuable tool for researching any number of topics. The sheer volume of vetted websites is impressive. The amount of material, however, sometimes leads to rather eclectic lists of sites for a given topic and some misclassification. Specific searches yield the best results.

Political Leanings: None

National Conference of State Legislatures

A bipartisan organization for state, commonwealth and territorial legislators and their staffs, the National Conference of State Legislatures “provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues.” The organization advocates the interests of state governments.

The NCSL’s website contains information about the issues state governments are facing, such as education, environmental protection, transportation, criminal justice and state-tribal relations. Visitors to the site can access various reports, including summaries of which states enacted certain types of legislation on, for example, gambling or immigration. The site also contains information on state elections and election laws.

The “GrassCatcher” page is a daily roundup of state and policy news. Visitors can listen to NCSL’s podcast and request a personalized daily or weekly e-mail on specified policy topics.

Comments: The website is a good resource for information on the status of state laws on various subjects.

National Rifle Association

The National Rifle Association, one of the nation’s oldest advocacy groups, was formed in 1871 to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” Since that time, the NRA has evolved into the largest gun-rights lobbying organization in the United States, with about 4.3 million members, according to its website.

The NRA describes itself as an organization committed to the promotion of firearm education, training and marksmanship. It has consistently defended its interpretation of the Second Amendment, arguing that attempts by the government to regulate arms are unconstitutional The NRA’s political involvement dates back to 1934, when it formed a legislative affairs division, which evolved into the group’s Institute for Legislative action in 1975. The NRA-ILA is the lobbying arm of the group and “is committed to preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” The NRA-ILA provides action alerts to its members and fact sheets on gun legislation, as well as candidate grades and endorsements that are available to NRA members on the group’s website.

Comments: The NRA offers a great deal of information on firearms and marksmanship. However, the information reflects its opposition to gun regulation and restriction in any form.

Political Leanings: Conservative, favors fewer restrictions on guns

Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan organization that’s a subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts, calls itself a “fact tank.” It conducts public opinion polling and social science research, and publishes reports and information on various issues through seven distinct projects:

Pew Research Center: U.S. Politics & Policy examines public attitudes toward the news media, surveys the demographic makeup of the American electorate, analyzes public and opinion leaders’ views on international policy, and measures public use of media sources. As with all of the Pew Research Center projects, its surveys are published on the Web site, along with commentary and datasets.

Pew Research Center: Journalism & Media conducts empirical studies of press coverage, mainly through content analysis. Its annual report on journalism, State of the News Media, is a comprehensive look at American journalism, including trends in the industry, content analyses and the economics of the business.

Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech researches the impact of the Internet on people, society and various facets of life, such as the work, health care and politics.

Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life functions as a forum for discussion of religion and public affairs. It publishes polls and reports on subjects such as religious affiliations, bioethics, religion and politics, the death penalty, and religion and social welfare.

Pew Research Center: Hispanic Trends focuses on eight key subject areas: demography, economics, education, identity, immigration, labor, politics and remittances. It conducts or commissions studies and public opinion surveys on Latino issues and perspectives. Its estimates on the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. have been widely cited.

Pew Research Center: Global Attitudes & Trends conducts public opinion polls worldwide on various subjects, including top issues in the news and people’s personal views of their lives. Its surveys have been conducted in 54 countries.

Pew Research Center: Social & Demographic Trends examines behaviors and attitudes in various areas of American life, such as family, health, work and leisure. Its reports pair public opinion polling with demographic data analysis.

Comments: The center is a good resource for public opinion surveys and detailed studies in its seven project areas.

Political Leanings: None

ProCon.org

This independent, nonprofit website lays out the arguments on both sides of a host of controversial issues. Its mission statement: “We promote critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship.”

ProCon.org presents issues such as “Sports and Drugs” or “Death Penalty” by giving a brief overview of the controversy, then framing the key question — “Should performance-enhancing drugs (such as steroids) be accepted in sports?” — and breaking it down into 10 underlying debates — “Athletes as Role Models” and “Sportsmanship,” for instance. Quotes from various sources on each side of the issue help readers understand the main points of contention and what the arguments are in support of each perspective.

The nonpartisan site was founded in 2004 by businessman Steve Markoff and his wife, Jadwiga.

Comments: ProCon.org is unusual in that it provides the arguments on both sides of an issue, along with sources for those who want to follow up further.

Political Leanings: None

Regulations.gov

Regulations.gov was set up in 2003 to better equip citizens to find, view and comment upon the vast array of federal regulations.

After Congress passes laws, federal agencies are responsible for enforcing them. They use regulations to accomplish that task, spelling out in detail how specific statutes are to be implemented. Each new proposed regulation must go through a notice-and-comment process, meaning that an agency must publicly announce a proposed regulation and then allow citizens the chance to weigh in. Keeping track of these draft rules once was a daunting project, as there are thousands of federal regulatory agencies. Regulations.gov simplifies the process by collecting proposed regulations from each federal agency and offering a forum for submitting
comments on them.

The site also catalogs federal regulations, so that anyone wanting to check the wording of rules that were issued to implement, say, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act can find them here.

The site can be searched by keywords, phrases or rule numbers. A short glossary of regulatory terms is provided, as is an extensive user guide. The site also includes an RSS feed that provides up-to-the-minute notice of new federal regulations.

Comments: The basic keyword search is straightforward, but the most powerful search functions require considerable knowledge of the regulatory process. If you know what you are looking for, Regulations.gov offers one-stop shopping. It is less useful for casual browsing and novices.

Urban Institute

The Urban Institute says it is a “nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization” focusing on “the social, economic, and
governance problems facing the nation.” It has its roots in the Great Society era of government anti-poverty programs; it was chartered by a
blue-ribbon commission assembled by President Lyndon Johnson to examine problems and issues faced by the nation’s urban populations.

The Urban Institute’s website offers detailed information, organized both by topic and by policy center, which are research arms within the
Institute that focus on specific areas. The Issues in Focus section offers summaries of the group’s research, along with links to more
in-depth reports relating to specific areas of policy disputes, such as Social Security reform, immigration and education. The institute also
maintains a Policy Decoder section, which is a helpful glossary of the more technical terms used in debates about public policy and social
programs.

Comments: Though liberal in its leanings, the institute's scholarship is widely respected.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where articles may be written or edited by any user who creates a free account. It offers a vast amount of easily accessible information; the English version contained more than 3.2 million articles as of March 2009. But it can’t guarantee accuracy and sometimes has been dramatically wrong.

Individuals who write and edit articles for Wikipedia are volunteers. In theory, they bring a vast collective knowledge to bear and quickly discover and correct any biased or inaccurate entries. Advocates say this bottom-up approach produces a product that rivals traditional, top-down encyclopedias in which articles are written by individual experts chosen by professional editors. Indeed, a study in the December 15, 2005, journal Nature reported that in a sample of 42 entries on scientific topics, its experts found 162 errors in Wikipedia compared with 123 errors in Britannica. However, Britannica later challenged the Nature study as “fatally flawed” and filled with “flagrant errors.”

The weakness of Wikipedia’s anybody-can-edit policy was demonstrated dramatically when a false biographical entry on John Seigenthaler Sr., former editorial director of USA Today, went uncorrected for four months in 2005. It claimed Seigenthaler had a role in the assassinations of former President John Kennedy and his brother Robert. Those false claims were the work of a 38-year-old employee of a Nashville delivery service, Brian Chase, who had posted the libels as a joke and who later apologized to Seigenthaler. Numerous other instances of false Wikipedia entries have come to light since.

Wikipedia’s own founder, Jimmy Wales, publicly cautions students against citing it as an authoritative source. In June 2006, at a conference sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, he said that he gets about 10 e-mails a week saying, “Please help me. I got an F on my paper because I cited Wikipedia.” Wales said those comments make him think to himself: “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

Wikipedia is “pretty good,” Wales said, “but you have to be careful with it. It’s good enough knowledge, depending on what your purpose is.”

Comments: Wikipedia is a useful resource when beginning research on an unfamiliar topic, but it's not always reliable. Information needs to be checked against original sources, but this is often difficult due to a frequent lack of footnotes.

Political Leanings: None