After A Two-Decade Ban, Congress Finally Says The Federal Government Can Study Gun Violence

Ambitious gun control plans were left out of Congress’s final must-pass bill before the fall, but the legislation does include two potentially significant changes.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress have agreed on legislation that would open the doors to the federal government studying the effects gun violence, softening decades of legal language that encouraged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to leave the issue alone.

A $1.3 trillion kitchen sink spending bill that must pass by Friday to avoid another government shutdown will not change gun control laws, but does contain two key measures to research gun violence and beef up background checks.

The momentum to significantly alter gun control laws in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting last month have faded in Congress in recent weeks, but the two provisions made it into the final, bipartisan bill released Wednesday night.

The spending bill contains a modest measure to improve reporting to the national background check registry. That was expected in recent days, but on top of it the committee report contains language that will allow the CDC the authority to research gun violence.

The CDC has essentially washed its hands of studying gun violence because of ‘90s legislation that prevented the agency from using any federal funds to advocate or promote gun control. While not an explicit ban, this legislative language has been ominous enough to mostly chill the agency from researching the issue. The result has been a dearth of research about the effects of gun violence in the US.

The House Rules Committee’s bill, which will need to pass both chambers of Congress this week, contains guidance language that is designed to embolden the CDC. “While appropriations language prohibits the CDC and other agencies from using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence,” says the report.

It appears to be referencing comments made earlier this month to reporters by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who said he did not interpret the language as banning CDC from studying gun violence.

The change in language was a coup for Democrats who have long argued that the CDC should be able to research gun violence and make recommendations to curb it. “It is well past time we prioritized research into gun safety, so while we should be doing more to support this research, I’m glad Republicans are finally willing to join Democrats in affirming the Department of Health and Human Services’ authority to conduct this critical work,” Sen. Patty Murray, the lead Democrat on the Senate’s Health Committee said in a statement.

The bill also contains the “Fix NICS” bill to improve reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. Federal law enforcement agencies are mandated to provide criminal and certain mental health reports to the database, and federally licensed gun retailers must check new gun sales against it.

The problem is that states are not required to contribute to NICS. Fix NICS would mandate that state agencies participate in the background check system, but has no measure to punish them for not doing so other than naming them.

The real impact of the legislation, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 in Republican leadership, comes from offering states grant money to compensate them for the administrative burden of reporting to NICS. A 2017 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that in 2014 there were 7.8 million warrant files stored across the 40 states that kept their own local databases, yet the federal database had just 2.1 million files.

People who could theoretically have been prevented from buying weapons by a robust background check system include the shooters behind the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting, the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting, and the Virginia Tech shooting.

However, the bill does not expand the use of background checks themselves. Currently they can be circumvented through gun sales to friends or family, sales online, or sales at gun shows.

The House and Senate must pass the omnibus bill and then have it signed by President Donald Trump by midnight Friday to avoid the third government shutdown in three months. The final bill released Wednesday night was written in part by leaders from both parties in the House and Senate.

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