Gun ownership in America is one of the most widely debated constitutional rights and social responsibilities. The debate is as simple as whether citizens should be allowed to arm themselves and where they have the right to bear arms. Other debates surround the definition of arms. Should people be allowed to carry semi-automatic weapons with hundreds of rounds of ammunition? Or should the federal government regulate who is allowed to bear arms? These questions take on deeper meanings after mass shootings like Virginia Tech and Pulse. And advocacy groups spend billions of dollars lobbying the federal lawmakers to pass laws – some for and some against. But, recently, the debate took a more scientific approach. Lawmakers discuss whether to ban gun violence research by medical experts.
While it’s assumed the United States (U.S.) Congress (Congress) enacted a ban on federal funding used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for gun violence research, this simply isn’t the entire story (Hitzik). Mark Rosenberg, a gun violence expert who headed CDC and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (CIPC) during the gun violence research, reporters at The LA Times the actual trust is worse and more dehumanizing (Hitzik). After the CDC released a study stating “having firearms in the home sharply increased the risks of homicide,” the National Rifle Association (NRA) launched a campaign aimed at stopping further research that hurt its supporters (Hitzik). The association lobbied for a bill to ban research funding aimed at gun violence, saying the CDC didn’t have jurisdiction in those matters and the funding was a waste of federal money (Hitzik).
In 1996, Congress passed a measure that stripped $2.6 million funds from the CDC and ordered the agency to stop all research related to gun violence (Hitzik). Congress also ordered the CDC to pull all funding from similar programs (Hitzik). Former U.S. Representative Jay Dickey (R-Ga.) said the CDC should not participate in gun violence research because doctors are more likely to oppose gun ownership based on their profession, are conducting research outside the agency’s charter, and the agency should not use its scientific standards to promote or oppose gun ownership (Hitzik).
Widely recognized as the Dickey Amendment, the law didn’t technically ban any federally funded gun violence research; instead, it was aimed at one particular agency and suggested the agency stop all research (Hitzik). Some legal experts interpreted the law as suggested and not regulatory (Hitzik). In the end, subsequent CDC Directors decided it was safer to take a literal approach and cancel all research (Hitzik).
Some opponents of the Dickey Amendment have addressed Congress, requesting new terms and conditions be outline in the ban (Stemwedel). However, the most recent attempt at rewriting the law was rejected (Stemwedel). Recent mass shootings urged opponents to file a request with Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives (House) (Stemwedel). In June 2015, the rejected the new proposals that would have repealed CDC ban on conducting research to study the relationship between gun ownership and gun violence (Stemwedel). House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) argued during the hearing that the CDC was overreaching its authority since “a gun is not a disease” (Stemwedel). In response, CDC supporters argued the agency has studied other kinds of non-disease factors that have a role in human health (Stemwedel).
Another attempt to strip the ban of its power is circulating on Washington, D.C. More than 100 medical groups have come together to petition Congress to fund CDC research on gun violence (McCarthy). In a letter sent to Congress earlier in 2016, the group asked Congress to “end the dramatic chilling effect of the current rider language restricting gun violence research and to fund this critical work” (McCarthy). More than 141 medical organizations signed the letter, including the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAASc) (McCarthy). The groups spokesperson, Dr. Alice Chen, Executive Director of Doctors for America, stated:
The medical and public health communities continue to believe gun violence, which claims an average of 91 American lives daily, is a serious public health threat that must be handled with urgency. Federal research has addressed many of our nation’s most pressing public health challenges and it is time do the same with gun violence. Congress must lift the barrier to research that has persisted for nearly 20 years and fund the work that we need to save lives and prevent future tragedies. (McCarthy)
While Congress hasn’t acted on the request, this statement and letter signed by the nation’s most prestigious medical associations will be the most prominent request since the ban took place more than 20 years ago (McCarthy).
Another attempt at lifting the ban took place in 2012 after the Newtown School attack (McCarthy). President Barack Obama issued orders instructing the CDC to resume studying gun violence (McCarthy). While it is not unheard of for sitting presidents to interfere with legislation, this order was the first in a line of Executive Orders designed to decrease gun violence (McCarthy). Obama issued another order the following year instructing the CDC to study “the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it” (McCarthy). The President also requested Congress to allocate more than $10 million in 2014 and 2015 to fund CDC gun violence research (McCarthy). However, both attempts to circumvent the original ban failed, and Congress denied the extra funding (McCarthy).
Many have opposed the “ban” on gun violence research. Politicians, legal experts, community and religious leaders, and researchers all have spoken against limiting the CDC’s funding. But one group has spoken louder than others. Physicians want the ban rejected and researchers to be allowed to study the impact of gun violence on national health. One doctor in particular is taking up the movement and lobbying Congress to act fast. Soon after the June 2016 attack at a prominent gay club in Orlando, Florida, Dr. Jay Kaplan, a local Orlando emergency room physician, flew to Washington, D.C., hoping to change the legislators’ minds (Jan). Kaplan, President of the American College of Emergency Physicians, told reporters he learned Congress was immovable in its opinion over gun control (Jan). He said “If one of our congressmen had a family member who was shot, then things might change” (Jan).
Rosenberg, also an opponent of the bill, aggress with the ER doctor’s frustration. While he said the ban didn’t expressly forbid the CDC from researching gun violence, it stripped more than $2 million from one program and forbade directors from approving research that promoted or opposed guns (Stein). The language of the law didn’t ban research but did the next best thing – instill fear in the hearts of CDC administrators (Stein). Rosenberg told reporters:
It was a shot across the bow warning people that if you do research in this area, [the NRA is] going to come after you and hassle you and make your life miserable. As a result, he said, ‘science has been stopped dead in its track for 20 years.’ ‘I want to say to these people [in Congress], What are you afraid of?’ (Stein)
Those political pressures prevent opponents of the law from exercising any judgement in their departments (Stein). It prevents the key decision-makers from doing their job (Stein).
Hitzik, Michael. “The NRA has blocked gun violence research for 20 years. Let's end its
stranglehold on science.” The LA Times. 14 June 2016. Web. 25 July 2016. http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-gun-research-funding-20160614-snap-story.html.
Jan, Tracy. “Researchers are banned from looking at gun violence. One physician wants to
change that.” The Boston Globe. 5 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016. https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2016/07/04/efforts-lift-ban-gun-violence-research-face-difficult-path-congress/bUuVVVzUKVuQJf5tQOBRHO/story.html.
McCarthy, Ciara. “Over 100 medical groups urge Congress to fund CDC research on gun
violence: Congress asked to lift 1996 amendment on bill that effectively banned Centers for Disease Control from researching guns as a ‘serious public health threat.’” The Guardian. 6 April 2016. Web. 25 July 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/06/cdc-congress-research-gun-violence-public-health.
Stemwedel, Janet D. “Congress Still Bans CDC Scientists from Studying Gun Violence.”
Forbes. 1 Oct. 2015. Web. 25 July 2016. http://www.forbes.com/sites/janetstemwedel/2015/10/01/congress-still-bans-cdc-scientists-from-studying-gun-violence/#540bba093b70.
Stein, Jay. “Senators Take a Small Stab at Ending the Ban On Gun Violence Research: The
CDC can’t research gun violence. These four lawmakers think that’s ridiculous.” The Huffington Post. 7 Jan. 2016. Web. 25 July 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/senators-gun-research_us_568f2cfee4b0a2b6fb6f8d41.