Why can’t we study gun violence? | Triangulator | Indy Week
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Why can’t we study gun violence? 

The conclusion, at least to U.S. Rep. David Price, D-Durham, is obvious: Of course the federal government should fund research into gun violence, just like it funds research into infectious diseases and mental health and the genetics of grapes and myriad other things, big and small, to use as an empirical basis for policy making.

But for the last two decades—even after Columbine and Newtown and Aurora and Charleston and all the other unspeakable tragedies that have been seared into our collective consciousness—that conclusion hasn't been as obvious to Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Since 1996, Congress has effectively prohibited federal dollars from flowing to studies of gun violence, under the theory that this research is designed to inexorably lead to regulations, and regulations are bad.

Last week, Price announced an effort to change that. Along with 109 fellow congressional Democrats, he sent a letter to House leaders asking them to revisit the ban, citing the seemingly accelerating proliferation of mass shootings (on average, more than one a day in 2015).

"In the wake of a seemingly endless string of mass shootings, Americans from diverse backgrounds and differing political beliefs have demanded that their elected leaders take action to keep our neighborhoods and communities safe," Price et al. wrote. "... Although Members of Congress may disagree about how best to respond to this problem, we should all be able to agree that our response should be informed by sound scientific evidence. That is why we are calling on you to take one simple step to help reduce the possibility of future tragedies like those in Roseburg, Charleston, Newtown, Aurora, and countless other American communities: lift the prohibition on federally funded research on gun violence in any final fiscal year 2016 appropriations legislation."

Though Price is optimistic—and though the author of the funding ban has recently said he made a mistake—there's little reason to believe his letter will go anywhere.

To understand why, a quick history lesson is in order: Reacting to a 1993 article in the New England Journal of Medicine that linked gun ownership to an increased risk of homicide, congressional Republicans at first sought to eliminate the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's National Centers for Injury Prevention and Control, which funded that study. When that failed, U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas introduced an amendment into an appropriations bill mandating that "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." (Dickey told The Huffington Post last month, "I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time. I have regrets.") On top of that, Congress reallocated $2.6 million from the CDC's budget—the same amount the agency had used the previous year to fund gun-related research.

Federal agencies took the hint. As a 2013 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association explains, "Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency's funding to find out. Extramural support for firearm injury prevention research quickly dried up."

And it has remained dry ever since—even following Newtown in 2012, when President Obama directed federal agencies to adhere to a strict interpretation of the amendment: fund research, not advocacy. Most government agencies, especially the CDC, "got caught up in the climate of not wanting to draw criticism," says Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University and a leading mental-health and gun-violence researcher.

This funding prohibition—and Congress' antipathy toward gun-violence research—has had "a chilling effect," Swanson adds. "I think it did affect the pipeline of researchers who even wanted to look at [this field]."

"There is research going on," counters Lars Dalseide, public affairs media liaison for the National Rifle Association. "It's going on quite a bit." That research, however, is largely funded by pro-gun-control groups. "The problem is they're coming in with a preconceived notion of a problem and they're gathering data to support it."

The same would hold true if the feds were behind the research, he adds. "The fact is that they have defined a problem and a solution, and now they're going to create data around it. They're already stating that."

Swanson says he and fellow members of the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy, an expert group that formed in 2013, have acquiesced to the reality that guns are here to stay. Instead, their primary concern is to keep guns away from dangerous individuals. The federal funding ban, Swanson says, has been a significant impediment to determining who those individuals are.

He calls the allegation that scientists have a hidden agenda "nonsense. ... There's just no evidence of this."

But this seems to be the prevailing view in Washington. At least twice since Newtown, Republicans have rejected Obama's $10 million funding request for gun-violence research. And this June, just a week after a white supremacist killed nine African-Americans in a Charleston church, the House Appropriations Committee voted down an effort to rescind the Dickey amendment.

"The restriction is to prevent activity that would undertake activities (to include data collection) for current or future research, including under the title 'gun violence prevention,' that could be used in any manner to result in a future policy, guidelines, or recommendations to limit access to guns, ammunition, or to create a list of gun owners," the committee's Republicans wrote in a report.

So what makes Price think his new initiative stands a chance?

"It's very hard to get support for something related to gun violence," he admits.

Nonetheless, he says, "Members have been very receptive to at least discussing the prohibition."

His goal is to attach a rider to one of the 12 appropriations bills that have to clear Congress by mid-December, not to dedicate funds for the research, but to allow for the possibility.

"Why not? Why wouldn't you?" he asks. "We research all kinds of things. If the NRA's so confident that there's nothing more that should be done, why wouldn't they want research to go forward?"

Reach the INDY's Triangulator team at triangulator@indyweek.com.

  • Local congressman David Price leads an effort to restore federal funding for gun-violence research

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