Federal research on gun violence has been effectively impossible for longer than I’ve been alive. In the past 22 years, we’ve had 669,721 firearm deaths and countless other incidents that left largely invisible survivors struggling to heal and adapt to their new reality. But if the omnibus spending bill now waiting on the Senate floor passes, the government may finally renew its support for studies on the subject, with implications for both public health and gun policy.
How did we end up with this federal funding freeze, and why has it stayed in place for so long? Until 1996, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sponsored high-caliber research into the causes and consequences of gun violence. The NRA didn’t like what those studies found—namely, that having a gun at home increased your risk of death by both homicide and suicide—and Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas, the association’s self-described “point man” during his eight years in Congress, took steps to ensure that such “anti-gun” science wouldn’t be supported by the government going forward. The so-called Dickey Amendment forbade the CDC from allocating funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” The spending bill it was attached to cut the agency’s budget by $2.6 million, the exact amount it had previously devoted to studies in that area.
The ban was never explicit, but the message was clear, and the chilling effect was immediate. While only the CDC was directly affected at first, the National Institutes of Health became bound by the amendment following the Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed into law 2011. Most scientists were already wary of addressing such a “political” topic by that point, anyway. Private foundations were unable to pick up the slack, and most eventually stopped trying. As of 2012, there were just a handful of private funding bodies remaining in the field.
It’s been hard for researchers to advocate against the policy—many who have spoken up have been punished for their efforts. Mark Rosenberg, who was the director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in 1996, was one such advocate, and battled Dickey over the amendment. He was fired in 1999, shortly after trying and failing to find a loophole in the legislation. Rosenberg had previously called for studies that would allow us to “revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes,” dulling their glamor with hard facts. But the CDC hasn’t funded a single firearm study since. Today, in relation to mortality rates, gun violence is the least-researched of the 30 leading causes of death in America by a substantial margin.
After their showdown, however, Dickey and Rosenberg forged an unexpected friendship. Their lengthy conversations and the sheer number of mass shootings that followed—there have been 77 since 1996—led Dickey to change his mind. In 2012, shortly after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, the men co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post, writing, “Like motor vehicle injuries, violence exists in a cause-and-effect world; things happen for predictable reasons. By studying the causes of a tragic—but not senseless—event, we can help prevent another.”
As David Stark notes in a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, motor vehicle injuries are a particularly salient point of comparison. Between 2004 and 2015, the mortality rates for vehicular accidents and gun violence were very similar, at 12.3 vs. 10.4 per 100,000 people respectively—yet research into the former received nearly 20 times as much funding as the latter. Crucially, that funding has had tangible results: Motor vehicle deaths have fallen sharply, “largely due to public health and safety measures resulting from research into the causes of and contributors to motor vehicle deaths.”
This gap in our knowledge is preventing us from making similar strides with respect to guns. As Jeremy Samuel Faust argued convincingly in Slate, forcing doctors and first responders to improvise based on anecdotes from the last mass shooting or comparable catastrophe is no way to prevent deaths and minimize harm to the survivors. But since the Dickey Amendment was passed, the lessons gleaned piecemeal from prior incidents are virtually all they’ve had to go on.
Beyond immediate, much-needed protocols for responding to shootings when they occur, the lack of formalized findings has also allowed lawmakers and lobbyists to assert that we just “don’t know” whether proposed preventative measures work, rendering the gun control debate frustratingly abstract. As things stand, it’s the right to bear arms versus decades-old or nonexistent data. Expressly enabling research into gun violence will help us discover what “common-sense” preventative measures should actually entail, and perhaps uncover less intuitive ways of saving lives in the process.
While the omnibus package includes a revision of the amendment rather than a full repeal, it’s a necessary start—and one with some bipartisan support, meaning it could succeed where President Obama’s executive order failed when Congress continued to block funding. If it does, we’ll no longer have to draw sweeping conclusions from just a handful of studies and can instead make informed decisions about how best to prevent gun violence and minimize the fallout where it does occur. Let’s hope researchers and politicians have the courage to commit to seeking answers and acting on them.