How The Prevention of Gun Violence Research Enables A Public Health Crisis
WHAT YOU CAN DO...
Call your Representatives and ask them to repeal the Dickey Amendment and support the Gun Violence Research Act to restore CDC funding
By Josette Barrans
After the devastating Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 that left 20 children and 6 staff members dead, President Obama ordered the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct research on gun violence and its causes. The call after such a terrible tragedy was “Never Again” and gun control advocates thought this would finally be enough to swing the partisan debate in their favor. Yet, since Sandy Hook, there have been 1,897 more mass shootings and zero studies conducted by the CDC on the causes of gun violence.
Considering that gun violence is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, one would assume this would be a public health issue of great importance to both the government and the public. However, the partisan connotations of this issue block any significant progress. Legal roadblocks instituted by pro-gun Republicans, such as the Dickey Amendment, have prevented significant research on gun control over the past 20 years. The Dickey Amendment was introduced by Arkansas representative Jay Dickey and added to the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997. This amendment states, “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”. This amendment came in response to a study conducted by the CDC in the previous year showing that having a gun in the home correlated with a higher risk of homicide by a family member. Though these study results were simply factual, the NRA accused the CDC of having an anti-gun bias and convinced congressional Republicans to take action. While the amendment only restricts the CDC from advocating for a certain position on gun violence rather than blocking research on the issue, its passage had underlying implications. The bill also took $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, which was the exact amount the agency spent on gun violence injury research in the previous year. This sent a clear message to the CDC: stop any and all research on gun violence. Without proper funding, the CDC has no motivation to take that leap of faith and defy the will of Congress. Additionally, the vagueness of what kind of research is permissible combined with the halt of new studies by the CDC discouraged any other organization from funding gun violence research for most of the last 20 years.
This amendment and the CDC’s inaction have gained increasing public opposition over time. In light of many recent shootings, especially the one in Parkland, many healthcare professionals are calling for more tangible solutions to this public health crisis, such as the repeal of the Dickey Amendment. Others are turning the blame to the CDC; in 2013 more than 100 scientists signed a letter that called on the CDC to continue research on gun violence that can identify effective solutions to the crisis. Jay Dickey himself regrets the chilling effect his amendment had on gun violence research, having written an article in the Washington Post discussing the importance of taking steps to reduce gun violence in 2015.
The CDC and other healthcare organizations are eager to conduct this research as they face both internal and external pressures to produce tangible solutions.. At least 65% of healthcare providers view gun violence as a major public health threat and wish to take action. Outside advocacy groups and prominent organizations, such as the American Psychological Association and Doctors for America, are calling for gun violence research as they are well aware of the human cost of gun violence.
Gun violence also poses an internal threat to healthcare organizations, as the cost of it alone justifies its classification as a major public health issue. According to research reported in Mother Jones, the direct and indirect costs of gun violence range from $100 billion to $229 billion dollars per year, costing each American around $700 per year. These estimates don’t even take into account all the long-term costs such as continued medical issues or counselling, as they are too extensive to track. Furthermore, the results of a 2017 study showed that gun violence research received around 1.6% of the funding you would expect considering its impact on mortality when compared to other leading causes of death. With this in mind, both Americans and insurance providers continue to bear the financial burden of gun violence failing to be classified as a public health epidemic.
The lack of government funding into gun violence prevents the healthcare industry from being able to effectively promote public health and safety. Healthcare providers have seen the real cost of gun violence and know action is needed but are unable to provide Congress with accurate data on the scope of this crisis.. The primary way politicians have been convinced to change their mind on public health issues throughout history was through the presentation of scientific research. Regulations were only enacted on the tobacco industry when research showing an explicit link between smoking and lung cancer was presented to lawmakers. Therefore, Congress in unlikely to do anything about gun control without clear and convincing evidence that only the healthcare industry can provide.
There has been a recent movement on both sides of the aisle to clarify that the Dickey Amendment does not actually ban research in response to outrage at the policy, which has allowed some progress to occur. The National Institute of Health has conducted gun violence studies in recent years, as their much larger budget provides them with less fear of retaliation by members of Congress. While critics have insulted the CDC for their lack of political courage, the CDC has recently acknowledged that they realize they are not actually restricted from conducting research, and will conduct this research as soon as the much-needed funding is allocated to them. Nonetheless, President Trump still failed to provide the CDC with funds or lift the ban on advocacy despite adding a provision to the spending bill clarifying that the CDC could conduct research into the causes of gun violence, essentially changing nothing. These kinds of clarifications and amendments are being used by Republicans as a guise of compromise and neutrality toward the subject when their underlying goal clearly remains to scare organizations into silence and block research that will show the danger of guns, and healthcare organizations are still feeling this pressure to stay silent. Even if research into gun violence were conducted, the studies will inherently be considered partisan by pro-gun legislators. The study that caused Republicans to create this amendment in the first place was considered biased simply for showing an obvious factual link, and current study results will likely indicate the necessity of gun control once again. Therefore, Republicans could continue to use the Dickey Amendment to block the use of these findings as evidence in Congress.
While advocating for research funding should be a top priority of Americans, the chilling effect of the Dickey Amendment is still a problem and its repeal would likely empower many organizations to conduct research without fear of backlash. By discouraging research and withholding funding, politicians with ties to the NRA are ensuring that no gun control measures will be taken, thereby allowing more mass shootings to occur. A lack of research would surely result in stagnation, resulting in more lives lost. This can no longer be a political debate - it must be a factual one.
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