Funding bill won't prompt new CDC gun research, experts say

Funding bill won't prompt new CDC gun research, experts say
© Greg Nash

The omnibus funding bill President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE signed on Friday includes a clarification stating that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can conduct research on gun violence — language that Democrats have touted as a win.

“This is a huge victory for our country, our communities, and our children, and our efforts to stop gun violence must and will continue,” Rep. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Cuomo wins and Manafort plea deal Hillicon Valley: North Korean IT firm hit with sanctions | Zuckerberg says Facebook better prepared for midterms | Big win for privacy advocates in Europe | Bezos launches B fund to help children, homeless Bipartisan trio asks US intelligence to investigate ‘deepfakes’ MORE (D-Fla.) said in a statement.

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But public health experts and former CDC officials say that, unless Congress actually appropriates money for that research, no progress will be made.

Democrats have frequently railed against the fact that a 1996 amendment has effectively stopped CDC from researching gun violence. The mass shooting at a Florida high school in February reignited the debate in Congress.

Democrats had pushed for a full repeal of the so-called Dickey Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funding to promote or advocate for gun control, but Republicans did not agree. Instead, leaders agreed to a one-sentence compromise explaining the Dickey Amendment that experts say will do little to promote CDC gun violence research.

“The explanation of the Dickey Amendment is meaningless unless funding is provided to do the research,” a former CDC employee said.  

Agency instructions accompanying the funding bill, which President Trump signed into law on Friday, make it clear the administration believes the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence. 

The clarification states: “While appropriations language prohibits the CDC and other agencies from using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.” 

The restricting amendment was inserted into a 1996 government-funding bill by the late Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), and has been renewed annually. 

Republicans argue the CDC has always had the authority to conduct research into gun violence, and the agency has essentially engaged in self-censorship, because the Dickey Amendment doesn’t explicitly ban such research.

The clarification “actually just says what the language says in the bill the first year the Dickey Amendment was put in, which was this doesn’t stop anybody from doing any research,” said Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntMurkowski echoes calls for Kavanaugh, accuser to testify Kavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday Kavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow MORE (R-Mo.). “It’s been the case the whole time.”

Public health advocates and Democrats say an explicit ban doesn’t matter, because the Dickey Amendment has created a chilling effect on research for more than 20 years. They also say the agency can’t do research when there hasn’t been any money appropriated for it.

“We’re all hopeful this will be a turnaround, but we need to see the money here,” said Fred Rivara, a professor in pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The omnibus does not provide new money for gun violence research, and top GOP appropriators said they have no interest in funding new federal research into gun violence.

“No,” Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeOvernight Health Care: House GOP blocks Trump-backed drug pricing provision | Maryland sues to protect ObamaCare | Insurers offer help to hurricane-impacted areas House GOP blocks Trump-supported drug pricing provision from spending bill Congress reaches deal to fund government through Dec. 7, preventing shutdown MORE (R-Okla.) said when asked if he was open to appropriating money for gun research.

“I think they need to make that decision themselves. We appropriate money for research, we don’t dictate what the lines of research necessarily need to be,” Cole added.

The omnibus gave the CDC a $1.1 billion boost for fiscal 2018, bringing its budget to $8.3 billion. The amount includes nearly $649 million earmarked for various “Injury Prevention and Control activities” within the CDC’s Office of Public Health Scientific Services.

“We’ve increased the [National Institutes of Health] research budget by 23 percent in three years. If they want to do gun research, they have plenty of money to do it,” Blunt, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said.

But none of that $649 million is authorized for firearms research.

According to a former CDC employee, the agency can’t conduct research into gun violence unless the money is specifically authorized for it. All research activities have a budget line with funds that need to be approved by Congress.

“So, while it’s encouraging to have the clarification, it doesn’t mean CDC can start this research now,” the former employee said.

Mark Rosenberg, who led the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control when the unofficial ban was enacted, said the agency hasn’t been conducting gun violence research because officials didn’t want to antagonize and alienate Congress.

When the Dickey Amendment was first passed, it came with an implied threat against future research.

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

Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, said he hoped Congress would have sent a stronger message of support.

“The strongest efforts would have been to remove the [Dickey] language entirely,” Benjamin said, as well as to give funding.

Rosenberg said he thinks Republicans don’t want to impede research, and was optimistic the appropriations will come.

“They need the blessing of Congress to go ahead and do this,” Rosenberg said. “CDC doesn’t have appropriations for this research. To think that we can do this without spending money doesn’t make sense.”