When President Obama delivered public remarks last week in response to the mass-shooting in Oregon, he touched on an under-appreciated angle to the debate over gun violence.
"We spent over a trillion dollars and passed countless laws and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so," he said
. "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?"
This wasn't entirely a rhetorical question -- concerns about the availability of public research on domestic gun violence have been ongoing for two decades.
There is no mystery as to 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, so conservatives in Congress added 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.
When [Dickey] helped pass a restriction of federal funding for gun violence research in 1996, the goal wasn't to be so suffocating, he insisted. But the measure was just that, dampening federal research for years and discouraging researchers from entering the field. Now, as mass shootings pile up, including last week's killing of nine at a community college in Oregon, Dickey admitted to carrying a sense of responsibility for progress not made.
The Arkansas Republican now believes the policy that bears his name should be fixed, if not scrapped.
Current GOP lawmakers, however, disagree -- Republicans remain fiercely opposed
to research related to gun deaths and public health.
Thanks to the Obama White House, the overall climate has improved, but only a little. The Huffington Post's piece added:
In recent years, the climate has grown brighter. After the 2012 shooting deaths of 20 first grade students and six staff members at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama instructed federal agencies to interpret the Dickey amendment literally -- as a restriction on funds for advocacy, not on funds for research. The CDC has hesitated in acting on that directive, both because of its limited resources and, gun control advocates suspect, a fear of political backlash. Indeed, The New York Times reported that as a courtesy, the center flags for the NRA any study that has anything to do with firearms.