The White House and public health experts say gun research should be no different from the work that led to seat belt laws. But Congress has blocked federal health agencies from the researching -- or even paying for the research of -- gun violence since the 1990s. President Barack Obama directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to pay for and undertake gun safety research, but Congress sent a clear message by appropriating no money for the CDC to do so.
The American Medical Association has traditionally been pretty friendly with Republicans, which made it all the more noteworthy when the physicians' organization voted to endorse a resolution characterizing gun violence as "a public health crisis," and pledging to start lobbying Congress on gun research. NBC News reported:
AMA President Dr. Steven Stack said in a statement, "Even as America faces a crisis unrivaled in any other developed country, the Congress prohibits the CDC from conducting the very research that would help us understand the problems associated with gun violence and determine how to reduce the high rate of firearm-related deaths and injuries."
He added, "An epidemiological analysis of gun violence is vital so physicians and other health providers, law enforcement and society at large may be able to prevent injury, death and other harms to society resulting from firearms."
This is an under-appreciated aspect of the debate. Last fall, after one of the many mass-shootings in recent years, President Obama explained, "We spent over a trillion dollars and passed countless laws and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so. And yet we have a Congress who explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?"
That's not necessarily a rhetorical question. As we discussed at the time, it’s common knowledge that the NRA and its allies have fought to kill any kind of restrictions on firearm ownership. What's less recognized is the fact that the gun lobby also helped block basic data collection, to the point that there’s “no current scientific consensus about guns and violence,” in large part because the NRA “has been able to neutralize empirical cases for control.”
As for how how this happened, in the 1990s, the Clinton administration’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began expanding its research into gun-related deaths as a public health issue. Conservatives in Congress responded by adding language to the appropriations bill that finances the CDC: “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.”
Nearly 20 years later, the principal author of that language, Arkansas Republican Jay Dickey, conceded to the Huffington Post that he has “regrets” over the policy that came to be known as the Dickey Amendment.
But the policy remains in place anyway. The AMA believes it's time for that to change, and the organization has a credible case to make. Whether Congress' Republican majority is willing to hear it is a very different question.