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The Baffling Reason The U.S. Government Still Can’t Research Gun Violence

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With the increased attention the gun control debate has received in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting and National School Walkout Day, many have been looking to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ask if the CDC can study gun violence. The CDC is known for researching public health effects of many issues, from cancer to car accidents.

However, the CDC is unable to study gun violence, thanks to the 1996 Dickey Amendment — a measure that was pushed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and later denounced by its own author, former Republican congressman Jay Dickey. The amendment has been a hotly debated issue in the gun reform movement for decades, and these days, many believe that its repeal would be a key step toward decreasing gun violence in the United States.

The story of the Dickey Amendment begins with the CDC's funding of a 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found U.S. households were more likely to experience homicides if a resident owned a gun. The NRA, which lobbies on behalf of gun manufacturers, scorned the study and decided to penalize the CDC for it.

Dickey agreed with the NRA's claim that the CDC had a political "agenda" in sponsoring the study, and after being lobbied by the association, he wrote an amendment for a federal budget appropriations bill stating "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."

Now, that text could be interpreted in multiple ways. "Gun control" is not the same thing as "gun violence." If the CDC decided to interpret the amendment loosely, it could research such violence as long as it didn't use its findings to promote a legislative agenda (in fact, President Obama directed the center to do just that in 2013; it refused).

But gun control opponents — who have long had a strong voice in Congress, and control both houses now — aren't willing to allow that interpretation. As long as there's a risk that data from CDC studies could confirm gun control activists' positions, they don't want those studies to happen. The CDC doesn't want to oppose Congress and risk losing any funding.

In a 2013 article about the stifling of gun research, which was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, two doctors wrote:

Precisely what was or was not permitted under the [Dickey] clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency's funding to find out.

But it's possible that the tide could be slowly shifting in favor of repealing the amendment. Dickey himself, who died in 2017, said in recent years that he regretted the clause. "I wish I had not been so reactionary," he told ABC, and he wrote in a 2012 Washington Post op-ed that he agreed with President Obama that the CDC should resume its gun violence research: "We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago, but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries."

If Democrats win control of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections, it could provide a window of opportunity to repeal the amendment. The increasing spotlight on the gun debate these days suggests that reform measures will be an important topic in the campaign season. Hiral Tipirneni, a Democrat running in Arizona's 8th district, is an ER doctor who has made health care a focus of her campaign and one of those who strongly opposes the Dickey Amendment.

"The young folks have it right," she wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, responding to thousands of school walkouts that took place across the country. She added:

Gun violence is a public health issue [and] must be treated as such. When I'm elected, I'll work to repeal the Dickey Amendment so the CDC can study firearm violence [and] allow evidence-based research to guide commonsense solutions.

Medical organizations have recently come together to advocate against the Dickey Amendment. Even hospitals, which largely avoid association with the gun reform debate, are more vocal when its comes to this issue. After the shooting in Parkland, the American Hospital Association's CEO, Rick Pollack, issued a statement calling for the CDC to receive funding for gun violence studies.

"When it comes to research, we believe that the same evidence-based approach that is saving millions of lives from cancer, motor-vehicle crashes and HIV/AIDS can help reduce community violence, particularly the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence," he wrote. "CDC is best known for fighting diseases — it's in the name. But its public-health purview is indeed wider — wide enough to allow the agency to conduct gun violence, safety and prevention research."