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Illustration by Michael Waraksa

A Dearth of Gun Data

As the gun control debate rages on, another controversy bubbles under the surface: Should the government fund gun violence studies?

For 20 years, federal agencies have adhered to a provision that has, in effect, quashed funding for studies of gun violence. In recent years, the issue has flared after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Massachusetts, but the funding ban has remained.

Last December, during the government's appropriations bill debate, medical groups, such as Doctors for America, the National Physicians Alliance, and the American College of Preventive Medicine, came together to demonstrate for an end to the effective ban.

"Gun violence is a public health problem that kills 90 Americans a day," Dr. Alice Chen, executive director of Doctors for America, said in an official statement. "Physicians believe it's time to lift this effective ban and fund the research needed to save lives. We urge Congress to put patients over politics to help find solutions to our nation's gun violence crisis."

But the ban also has its supporters, both inside and outside of Congress. Groups like Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership (DRGO) say the effective ban prevents the government from funding agenda-driven "advocacy research," which has a preordained goal of generating support for gun control measures.

"I don't think the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or any government agency will ever be able to be objective about this," DRGO Director Timothy Wheeler tells Security Management.

The effective ban has its origins in the politics of the 1990s. In 1994, the GOP scored a historic win in the midterm elections, including a 54-seat swing in the U.S. House of Representatives that gave the Republicans a majority of seats in that chamber for the first time since 1952.

To many, part of that electoral success was due to the GOP's campaigning against President Bill Clinton's gun control measures. Buoyed by their new majority, House GOP leaders pursued an active legislative agenda.

One component of this agenda was an effort to defund government research on gun violence. Those seeking defunding presented three arguments, says Wheeler, who was one of the four medical doctors who testified on the issue in 1996 before a House appropriations subcommittee.

One argument was that CDC leaders, such as Mark Rosenberg, head of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, made comments in published interviews that reflected clear bias. For example, Rosenberg told The New York Times: "We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes. It used to be that smoking was a glamor symbol, cool, sexy, macho. Now it is dirty, deadly, and banned."

The second argument was that federal agencies had already conducted gun studies that amounted to "junk science," unworthy of taxpayer money. Third, advocates of defunding argued that the CDC had previously awarded a government grant to a leftist political organization that was advocating for campaign finance reform.

After hearing these arguments, the Republican-controlled House tried to defund the $46 million Center for Injury Prevention. That effort failed, but Congressman Jay Dickey (R-AZ) made another proposal: removing the $2.6 million in funding that the agency had used for gun violence, with the money to be restored later for research unrelated to guns.

The proposal, made as a rider in the 1996 appropriations bill, also included key language stating 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." 

The proposal passed, and became known as the Dickey amendment. The effect of the amendment, some researchers say, went beyond the agency—young academics were warned that entering this area of study was a bad career move, because little grant money would be available. Supporters of the amendment, however, say that academic and private sector research in the area is still plentiful. In 2011, congressional Republicans extended the Dickey amendment so that it also covered the National Institutes of Health. (The FBI still maintains statistics on firearm background checks. See chart on this page.)

Then, after the mass shooting in Aurora in 2012, Dickey (who was no longer a member of Congress) publicly reversed his position, calling for new gun violence and safety research.

Congress, however, failed to heed its former member's call.

Later that year, after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama issued an executive order calling for the CDC to resume study of the causes of gun violence. But CDC officials declined to do so, citing difficulties in securing funding that could be dedicated to gun research.

The issue came up again last December, during congressional negotiations for the new budget. House Democratic leaders argued that any omnibus spending bill that moved forward should not contain the Dickey amendment. Nonetheless, House Republicans went ahead and attached a rider to the omnibus spending bill that extended the Dickey amendment for another year. The chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), reacted furiously.

"The inclusion of this rider is outrageous," Thompson said after the rider was attached. "…No one can offer one good reason to keep this ban in place. This rider has prohibited experts at the CDC from researching the causes and best ways to prevent gun violence for nearly 20 years."

To buttress his case, Thompson released a letter from Dickey, who called for more research and cited safety advances made by the highway industry—such as the three-foot barricades placed between lanes—that came about due to federal studies.

"Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners, in the same fashion that the highway industry continued its research without eliminating the automobile," Dickey wrote.

"It is my position that somehow or some way we should slowly but methodically fund such research until a solution is reached. Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution," he added.

Still, in the end, Republicans did attach a rider to the omnibus bill. Democrats were unwilling to reject the overall legislation, and ultimately the bill was approved.

And so, the debate continues. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), who has offered amendments in the past to remove the effective ban from government spending bills, plans to continue working to repeal it this year, according to Matthew Dennis, a Lowey spokesman.

"She is always optimistic that commonsense efforts to understand and stop gun violence will in time prevail over specious arguments and blind opposition to reasonable and important proposals like this," Dennis tells Security Management. 

On the other side of the issue, supporters of the effective ban vow to defend it, even if a new leaders are appointed at federal agencies. "There's an institutional bias, not just in the CDC but in many of the agencies in the executive branch, that's not going to go away," Wheeler says.​