Fight to end gun research ban fizzles

Greg Nash

Democrats’ latest push on gun legislation appears likely to fall short, as Republicans look to beat back a proposal to restore the flow of federal dollars for gun violence research as part of a sweeping government spending bill now under consideration.

On the heels of a string of mass shootings — including this month’s deadly attacks in San Bernardino, Calif. — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led calls to repeal the 19-year-old funding prohibition this week, adding it to her list of demands during this week’s budget talks.

But Pelosi has carefully refrained from a threat to reject the overall bill if her demand isn’t met, following a series of failed attempts at strengthening gun control in recent years.

“What I think of it more as an incentive for Democrats to vote for the bill,” Pelosi said Friday when asked if the provision would be a make-or-break deal for the Democrats.

The vague word choice underscored the likelihood that the 19-year-ban will remain in place, with Republicans calling it a toothless effort.

“I don’t think that’s going to be something that there’s much movement on,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who leads the House Appropriations Committee’s panel on health spending. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has declined to take a position.

Only one senior Democrat, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), has said he will base his own vote on the gun research ban, and the chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) has said he’ll wait to see the final bill. Pelosi herself said in October that it would be nearly impossible to remove the rider while the party is in the minority.

Republicans say they aren’t worried, and observers say the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun rights group whose lobbying sparked the initial amendment, isn’t either.

“[Democrats] just want to make headlines,” a firearm industry source said. “It’s not going to go anywhere, the rider will stay intact.”

“That issue won’t be a make or break issue in the negotiation, I can tell you that,” said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House GOP Doctors Caucus, with a laugh.

The so-called Dickey amendment, named for former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), has had a chilling effect on nearly all federally funded gun research — though it does not technically outlaw it.

Specifically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is only banned from using federal funding “to advocate or promote gun control.”

But that language was a “shot across the bow” for researchers, says Mark Rosenberg, who led the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control when the ban was enacted.

Most CDC researchers pulled back from gun-related studies and funding for such efforts gradually dried up. In its place, that research has been concentrated at a handful of universities like John Hopkins University and the University of California, Davis, where one researcher spent $1.1 million of his own money so his budget wouldn’t disappear.  

By 2014, the agency’s budget for gun violence research was $0. It has requested a $10-million increase in funding for gun violence prevention research since 2014, but Congress has not acquiesced.

A spokesperson for the agency declined to comment on the Dickey amendment.

The lack of research has left major holes in what is known about the nation’s gun violence problem, experts say.

Some of the most commonly touted figures in the gun debate — such as the number of guns obtained through straw purchases — are two decades old. There is no evidence that policies like gun licensing or registration is effective. There are no reliable statistics that take into account internet sales.

Republicans enacted the ban after fierce lobbying from groups like the NRA, which
claimed that government agencies use studies to advance gun control.

“This bill would say to the NRA that you no longer have a stranglehold on information, on research,” Pelosi said at a press conference Thursday announcing her intent to eliminate the ban.

“Of all the NRA measures that are hostile to sensible controls on gun violence, this one comes close to being the most absurd that you can’t even study the topic,” Rep. David Price (R-N.C.) said.

Republicans deny they are bowing to pressure from the NRA.

“I’ve never been lobbied by the NRA on this issue at all, ever, and I would think that I probably would have been,” said Roe, who is a concealed carry permit holder.

The NRA says that it supports further research into the causes of gun violence, such as defensive gun use and the effects of right-to-carry laws. But it insists that the original studies done by the CDC were designed to push a gun-control agenda.

“The CDC speaks only to the alleged possible risks associated with firearms ownership,” a NRA sheaf of talking points from the mid-90s reads. “That is usually all they ever concentrate on, never the benefits to society.”

A spokesperson from the organization suggested that the dearth of research since the amendment was enacted “speaks to the kind of research they want to do.”

Rosenberg, who now leads the nonprofit Task Force for Global Health, argues that the CDC’s work was politically neutral, but acknowledges that it didn’t always take into account the need to preserve Second Amendment rights.

“When I was at CDC, we didn’t realize 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.”

The push to restore gun research funding came into public view this December after its author, Dickey, publicly declared that he had changed his mind on the legislation and sent a letter to GOP leaders urging them to reverse it.

Many Republicans still say they agree with the NRA, though the issue is low on their radar.

“We don’t see a necessity to change [the language],” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), adding that he wasn’t opposed to studying the causes of violent crimes generally.

“I wouldn’t make that my highest priority if I only had one research dollar, but I’m not going to say you should never spend some money on it,” Barton said. “I don’t think we should research the sex life of the tsetse fly, you never know.”

“I’ll trade with [Pelosi],” another conservative, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) said. “If she’ll give me letting me decide if I want to give money to [Planned Parenthood], then take that… but she doesn’t want to negotiate.”

Rosenberg shrugs when asked if the language should be removed, noting that the CDC “is not in the business of advocacy.”

“I don’t think it’s important to take the language out,” he said. “But CDC needs funds to do the research and it’s so important to get the research started.”

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