The Health 202: Gun violence research by the government hasn’t been funded in two decades. But

Source: Washington Post

By Paige Winfield Cunningham

Is the latest school shooting enough to convince Congress to start funding gun violence research again? Democrats are hoping it just might be.

In the wake of the Parkland, Fla., tragedy that left 17 dead at a local high school, Republicans are generally resisting passing stricter gun control laws, although some of their resolve is starting to crack as President Trump and GOP lawmakers indicate an openness to strengthening background checks or gun violence restraining-order laws. One of them is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who participated in a politically risky and emotional CNN town hall last night on gun violence in which he supported raising the minimum age for buying a rifle and  stated he is reconsidering his stance on high-capacity magazines.

And student displays — such as the lie-in protests teenagers staged in front of the White House this week – have given gun-safety advocates fresh hope that the violence in Parkland could create new momentum across the country to enact firearms restrictions, my colleagues Dave Weigel and Wesley Lowery report.

There is some action, however, on another front that could have significant impact on the debate. There’s a move to reverse a 22-year-old restriction on how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can fund gun-related research — which has essentially created a situation in which policymakers have very little up-to-date data about what causes gun violence or how it can be prevented or reduced.

Under the “Dickey amendment” — named after former congressman Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican who was a strong NRA ally — the the CDC can’t use money to “advocate or promote gun control.” While the amendment doesn’t explicitly ban research on gun violence, it has had a chilling ripple effect on federal agencies beyond the CDC and even on privately funded research across the country.

“I think it’s a huge problem,” David Hemenway, director of Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center, told me. “It’s not only CDC but [the National Institutes of Health] has also not done its role in this. And foundations haven’t stepped up because they’re afraid.”

Ironically, Dickey has since reversed course, indicating that his amendment was misguided in light of the wave of subsequent school shootings. Before he died last year, the former lawmaker expressed a desire to turn gun violence research “over to science and take it away from politics.”

There are some recent indications that key Republicans may feel the same way.

Quizzed last week about his views on gun violence research, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told apanel on Capitol Hill it should be a “priority” for HHS (which houses both CDC and NIH) to research serious mental illness, the causes of violence and, referring to the Florida shooting, the causes of “tragedies like this.”

“We’re in the science business and the evidence-generating business, and so I will have our agency certainly working in this field, as they do across the broad spectrum of disease control and prevention,” Azar said.

And House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said the same day on C-SPAN that it’s not “inappropriate” to take a second look at the Dickey ban.

A group of House Democrats say they see in Azar and Goodlatte’s comments an opportunity to reverse the funding restrictions. Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and David Price (D-N.C.), along with five colleagues, wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) yesterday, urging him to bring up legislation repealing the Dickey amendment and provide “adequate” funding for the CDC to research firearm-related violence.

“There appears to be an opening to finally rescind this unwarranted and detrimental impediment on federally funded research and once again conduct research that could save lives,” the Democrats wrote.

They pointed to a research agenda on gun violence developed by the Institutes of Medicine (IOM) in 2013 in response to executive orders by then-President Obama directing federal agencies to improve knowledge of the causes of gun violence, what might help prevent it and how to reduce its toll on public health.

The IOM’s agenda “can be conducted over the next three to five years, including the characteristics of firearm violence, risk and protective factors, and the impact of gun safety technology,” the Democrats wrote.

When I contacted the CDC, the agency pointed to some limited work federal agencies have done on gun violence research, mostly related to data-gathering and analyses. Last July, NIH published a study on childhood firearm injuries in the United States, and in October 2015 it published a study on overall firearm injuries.

“CDC does not receive direct funding for firearm-related research, but it does do data collection and research that includes firearms as one mechanism of these types of violence issues,” an agency spokeswoman said.

Yet public safety experts note there are a host of questions to which policymakers don’t have any answers supported by scientific data because of the Dickey amendment. Without that ban, they would likely be much further along in understanding the effect of an assault weapons ban on school shootings and what does work in preventing such deadly incidents from occurring.

Here’s a glaring comparison: While deaths from car accidents are closely tracked in the government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, there is no such database for gun deaths. That means there aren’t definitive answers to even basic questions, such as how many households own guns and how many gunshot wounds there are every year.

“We’ve scratched the surface,” Hemenway said. “There should have been 100 times more dollars and 100 times more articles on this.”

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