The federal government is still not researching the root causes of gun violence and appears to have no plans to do so, despite Congress freeing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to finally study the issue one month ago.
The US has a much higher rate of gun deaths than the rest of the developed world, with around 40,000 shooting deaths recorded each year. But despite gun violence being one of the most hotly debated public safety issues, there has been hardly any federal research on the topic because of a two-decade-old amendment passed by Congress that bans the CDC from spending any money to “advocate or promote gun control.”
Since Congress passed that ban in 1996, the CDC has avoided researching guns beyond some basic data collection. As a result, there are massive scientific gaps in what we know about gun violence in the US. One study found that gun violence kills about as many people as sepsis, yet has 0.7% as much research funding.
There was hope that this would change. New Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told a congressional committee in February that he believed the CDC should do more research into gun violence.
Then in March Congress gave the CDC the green light. The $1.3 trillion spending bill Trump signed into law came with guidance from the House Rules Committee explicitly stating that the CDC “has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.”
Despite this, it appears that nothing has changed. When asked by BuzzFeed News whether it had started or plans to start researching the causes of gun violence, a CDC spokesperson pointed only to existing work. “CDC has and will continue to support data collection activities and analyses to document the public health burden of firearm injuries in the US,” said a CDC statement.
The statement also included the text of the Dickey Amendment banning spending money to “advocate or promote gun control,” though with a note that the rule does not prevent all research on “firearm violence.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy. “If Congress really thinks that CDC should be funding gun research then it should repeal the amendment. So the message to researchers when you don’t repeal the amendment, you just clarify it, is that the chill is still there.”
The ban came about after a 1993 CDC study caused an uproar when it contradicted the National Rifle Association’s position that having guns in a home improves safety. The study found that having a gun in a home in fact increased the risk of gun violence, and it discussed mitigating actions such as reducing the number of guns and limiting where and how they can be carried.
The NRA and congressional allies denounced the study as being politically motivated. In 1996 Congress passed what’s known as the Dickey Amendment, after its sponsor, Arkansas Republican Rep. Jay Dickey. Congress also stripped the CDC of $2.6 million, the amount it had spent on gun violence research the year before.
Sen. Murphy said he believed that researchers are still afraid of running afoul of a federal statute, and have reason to be because, despite the congressional guidance, the Dickey Amendment itself has not been repealed.
“If you want to move the needle you need to remove the Dickey Amendment,” he said.
Republican Rep. Tom Cole, vice chair of the House Rules Committee, said he believes that the CDC has the right to research the causes of gun violence but that it is ultimately their choice.
“That’s a decision they make individually. They don’t need to be dictated from Congress,” he said.
In 2016 over 100 medical groups signed a letter urging Congress to repeal the Dickey Amendment. Before he died, Jay Dickey himself had a change of heart. He called for more research into gun violence in a 2012 Washington Post op-ed titled “We won’t know the cause of gun violence until we look for it.”