For 20 years, Congress has stifled federal research into the causes and effects of gun violence. It’s time for Congress to stop serving at the will of the gun lobby and start investing in research to understand the connection between gun violence and public health.
Research into the causes of gun violence is critical to developing policies aimed at reducing this form of violence and making our communities safer. Only by understanding the causes of gun violence can we better address this public safety issue that results in the deaths of over 36,000 Americans every year.
However, the federal government has refused to make studying our gun violence epidemic a priority. Since 1996, every government funding bill has included what’s known as the Dickey Amendment, named after its sponsor, Rep. Jay Dickey (R-AR). Added in response to a 1993 research study funded by the Center for Injury Prevention and Control, a department within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found having a gun at home increases the risk of both homicide and suicide, the amendment dictated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” To drive home their point, Congress also earmarked $2.6 million for research on traumatic brain injury– the exact amount the CDC had budgeted for firearms research the year before. This amendment has effectively banned gun violence from being studied as a public health crisis.
As gun violence research is paused, government research into other areas has saved lives.
As the nation’s leading public health institution, the CDC has made lifesaving progress in subjects other than gun violence– and such lifesaving progress leads to lifesaving public policy. After scientists and engineers were able to identify risk factors of cars, for example, Congress passed the Highway Safety Act in 1966, which included new automobile safety laws to prevent people from driving while intoxicated and discourage drinking underage. The CDC’s continued research and policy changes led to the fall of car-related deaths from over 41,000 in 1997 to just over 30,000 in 2013. Gun deaths, on the other hand, outpaced car-related deaths in 21 states and the District of Columbia in 2014 alone.
Public opinion has turned, but the effective ban continues
In 2012, the late Congressman Dickey removed his support from his 1996 amendment. In an opinion piece written with the former president of the CDC center that studied gun violence, the two stated that after 16 years they were “in strong agreement that scientific research should be conducted info preventing firearm injuries.” The op-ed advocated for a data driven, evidence-based approach to prevent gun violence, stating that lifesaving research could be done without infringing on second amendment rights. Still, research prohibition language remains, and was expanded to include the National Institutes of Health in 2012.
Looking for others to take the lead
In the absence of federal investment in the the causes of America’s gun violence epidemic, states and private researchers have stepped up to the plate. The University of California, Davis received $5 million from the state of California to establish a firearms research center– the first of its kind nationwide– while schools of public health at Harvard and Johns Hopkins have invested heavily in research on gun suicide and various other forms of gun violence.