Florida shooting reopens CDC gun research debate

Florida shooting reopens CDC gun research debate
© Nicole Vas

A mass shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead has reopened a debate in Congress about loosening long-standing restrictions on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) research into gun violence. 

Democrats have frequently railed against the restrictions, which were enacted in 1996 after fierce lobbying by outside groups like the National Rifle Association. But Republicans have been able to beat back Democratic attempts to restore the flow of federal research dollars to gun violence research.

Still, recent comments by the Trump administration’s top federal health official, as well as some House Republicans, suggest that at least some Republicans could be changing their minds.

On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar expressed a willingness to let his department look into the causes of gun violence. 

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"We believe we’ve got a very important mission with our work with serious mental illness as well as our ability to do research on the causes of violence and the causes behind tragedies like this, so that is a priority for us especially at the Centers for Disease Control," Azar said during a congressional hearing.

Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceGOP super PAC targets House districts with new M ad buys GOP staves off immigration revolt — for now House Republicans wrestle over immigration deal MORE (R-N.J.) echoed Azar’s remarks.

“I agree with Secretary Azar — it’s time to permit the CDC to study gun violence as a public health problem,” Lance, a top Democratic target facing a tough reelection, said in a statement. 

“By removing restrictions that prevent the federal government from studying mental health issues that lead to gun violence, Congress could have a clearer picture of what effective policies and solutions might be taken to stem the tide of violence,” Lance added.

Other Republicans had more measured responses, but said they are generally supportive of lifting the restriction on CDC gun violence research. 

“I personally don’t have a problem with them investigating, to get scientific information or facts,” said Rep. Phil RoeDavid (Phil) Phillip RoeTrump signs VA Mission Act — this is a health care win for vets Memorial Day 2018 — let's remember those who died as a result of VA's lack of accountability Senate must pass Mission Act to give veterans care they deserve MORE (R-Tenn.)

“I don’t have a problem with anyone researching any segment of society,” said Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerTrump immigration comments spark chaos in GOP Few voice support after House GOP releases 293-page DACA bill Republicans seek Plan B on midterm messaging MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. Walker added that he would have a problem with actively blocking research. 

The call to reexamine the funding restrictions was also taken up by a top House Republican, Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteWhite House walks back Trump's rejection of immigration compromise Goodlatte begins process to subpoena FBI agent who sent anti-Trump texts: report Trump immigration comments spark chaos in GOP MORE (R-Va.), the retiring chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. 

Goodlatte made it clear that he doesn’t want the CDC straying from its core mission.

“I don’t think it’s inappropriate — particularly if the original author of that says it should be examined — to take a look at it, to see if there is a way to do that, to promote the cause, the core pursuit of the Centers for Disease Control, which is to prevent disease, not to address issues related to things that happen because someone has a disease like mental illness,” Goodlatte said. 

Goodlatte was referring to the so-called Dickey amendment, a provision inserted into a 1996 government funding bill by the late Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) that has been renewed annually.

The provision states that "None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.” 

Although the provision doesn’t explicitly ban research into gun violence, public health advocates and Democrats say there’s been a chilling effect that’s been in place for over 20 years. 

CDC researchers stopped working on gun-related projects, and federal funding disappeared. 

“Congress fired these warning shots across the bow that told CDC and other agencies and other gun researchers that if you work in this area, we’ll make your work and life really difficult,” said Mark Rosenberg, who led the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control when the ban was enacted.  

After passing the Dickey amendment, Congress shifted the $2.6 million CDC had earmarked for studying gun violence and prevention into a fund for studying traumatic brain injuries.

The agency has lacked dedicated funding for firearms research ever since. Instead, the research has been concentrated at a handful of private foundations and universities such as Johns Hopkins University, the University of Washington and the University of California, Davis.

For example, in fiscal 2014 through 2017, Former President Obama requested $10 million each year for CDC to use to study gun violence and prevention. The GOP-controlled House denied the request each time. 

“CDC can do [basic] surveillance. They can look at patterns, characteristics … they can’t do proactive studies. That falls into the bucket of ‘gun control,' ” a former CDC employee told The Hill.

The lack of research has left major holes in the collective knowledge about the country’s gun violence problem.

“We don’t have any idea who has guns in the U.S., or how many guns. There are no databases on gunshot wounds, and no research on how to find that,” said Fred Rivara, a professor in pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

House and Senate Republicans are far from united on the issue. Some signaled they aren't interested in easing the restrictions, which are backed by the powerful National Rifle Association.

“We’re talking about communicable diseases, we’re talking about disease control … in this particular case, I don’t think that [CDC] would necessarily be the appropriate place to have a serious discussion,” said Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsTrump, senators headed for clash on cyber policy GOP support growing for anti-Trump trade bill Overnight Defense: Trump decision on Korea summit coming 'next week' | China disinvited from major naval exercise | Senate sends VA reform bill to Trump MORE (R-S.D.) 

Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeGOP centrists face decision day on Dreamer petition Bipartisan support for medical research is good news for all Trump on collision course with Congress on ZTE MORE (R-Okla.), a top House appropriator, told The Hill that since the Dickey amendment doesn’t prohibit CDC from researching gun violence, the self-censorship by the agency is “probably an oversensitivity.” 

Cole added that he doesn’t want to have the CDC involved in a debate about guns. 

“That kind of debate — misconstrued — could easily get you into a situation where you lost a lot of support for what is a really critical agency,” Cole said. “I’m not particularly interested in having that funding bill become the focus of a gun control debate, because the CDC does a lot more important than that.”

While some in the GOP are signaling openness to CDC gun research, outside observers are skeptical that anything will change.

“I’m always encouraged. I’m always happy to hear someone speak it, but I’m a cynic until they do it,” said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. 

“We’ve heard this rhetoric before. We’ve heard this on bump stocks, on assault weapons, on mental health parity. As far as I know, none of that has happened,” Benjamin added. 

Rosenberg said research needs to take into account people’s Second Amendment rights, and acknowledged that wasn’t always the case when he was at CDC.

“The research needs to have two very clear goals: One needs to be to reduce gun violence and the other goal needs to be to protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners,” Rosenberg said. 

Despite the wishes of Democrats, Rosenberg said it’s essential that the Dickey amendment needs to remain in place.

“If we succeed in getting an appropriation, it’s because we have bipartisan support on this, it’s not because we have one group advocating,” Rosenberg said.

The Dickey amendment “gives us cover,” Rosenberg said, because it guarantees that money for research won’t be used for gun control advocacy.

“It’s critical for building the bipartisan support we need now. Do not get rid of the amendment,” he said.