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Republicans plan to keep restrictions on gun research in place

Republicans say they don't want to pass new gun laws without new information, but they then block research into guns and public health.
A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., Sept. 30, 2014. (Photo by Tami Chappell/Reuters)
A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., Sept. 30, 2014.

The day after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a longtime opponent of new gun measures, said Congress needs to "take a breath and collect the facts." The Republican leader added, "We don't just knee-jerk before we even have all the facts and the data."

At face value, that seemed like an entirely sensible approach. After all, who could be against collecting facts and data before engaging in policymaking?

The trouble, of course, is that there's already a federal restriction in place to prevent officials from collecting facts and data -- and Politico  reports today that congressional Republicans intend to leave it in place, despite recent developments.

Republicans are intent on preserving the so-called Dickey amendment, which prohibits the CDC from advocating on gun control, POLITICO's Jennifer Haberkorn reports. [...]Opponents say the Dickey amendment has had a chilling effect on CDC research into gun deaths. But Republicans say they don't want to add additional controversy to the upcoming spending bills by eliminating it.

I don't imagine most Americans have heard of the Dickey amendment, but it's an important policy. As Vox explained this week, "Congress has made it effectively impossible for federally funded researchers to study gun violence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health are the gold standards for public health research in the United States. But they are effectively barred from studying a problem that kills more than 35,000 people in a year."

Let's back up and review the context to all of this. The Washington Post  reported last fall:

[O]ne reason the positions are so intractable is that no one really knows what works to prevent gun deaths. Gun-control research in the United States essentially came to a standstill in 1996. After 21 years, the science is stale.“In the area of what works to prevent shootings, we know almost nothing,” Mark Rosenberg, who, in the mid-1990s, led the CDC’s gun-violence research efforts, said shortly after the San Bernardino shooting in 2015.In 1996, the Republican-majority Congress threatened to strip funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unless it stopped funding research into firearm injuries and deaths. The National Rifle Association accused the CDC of promoting gun control. As a result, the CDC stopped funding gun-control research – which had a chilling effect far beyond the agency, drying up money for almost all public health studies of the issue nationwide.

As regular readers may recall, 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.”

Nearly 20 years after this policy took effect, the principal author of that policy, Arkansas Republican Jay Dickey, conceded that he has “regrets” over the policy that came to be known as the Dickey Amendment.

But the policy remains in place anyway.

There's been some chatter lately about possible limits of the Dickey policy. Alex Azar, Donald Trump's new Secretary of Health and Human Services, suggested his agency may be able to do some research on guns and public health, current restrictions notwithstanding.

Those comments have led GOP lawmakers to believe they can turn their attention elsewhere and leave the Dickey amendment in place, presumably indefinitely. What's unclear, however, is how far HHS can go and whether new legislation is necessary.

Watch this space.

Postscript: It's worth emphasizing that there is some private research on guns and public health, including a new report from the Rand Corp. which was just released. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent had a good piece this morning on the latest findings.