Mass shootings, gang violence, domestic abuse, suicide, accidents — gun violence in the United States comes in many forms. And often. In the past week, the country has seen already two mass shootings. Every day, 89 people die because of gun-related violence. Experts estimate guns may soon surpass vehicle accidents to the country’s leading cause of deaths. President Barack Obama has repeatedly urged lawmakers to not make this the “new normal.”
But when it comes to finding solutions to this national problem, there’s a major roadblock standing in the way. It’s been decades since any federally-funded scientific research has been done on the issue.
That’s why members of Congress joined physicians from across the country Wednesday morning to demand an end to the Dickey Amendment, a 20-year-old law banning any federal research on gun violence.
“Gun violence is among the most difficult public health challenges we face as a country, but because of the deeply misguided ban on research, we know very little about it,” said Rep. David Price, vice chair to the House of Representatives’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. “Regardless of where we stand in the debate over gun violence, we should all be able to agree that this debate should be informed by objective data and robust scientific research.”
This ban, supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA), has effectively silenced researchers at both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) for conducting any comprehensive studies on what causes violence — and what can be done to prevent it — since 1996. As expected, it’s left public health experts and policymakers with little to lean on as they attempt to craft new legislation to help quell the fatal trend.
At Wednesday’s press conference, led by Doctors for America, doctors presented a petition signed by more than 2,000 physicians in all 50 states requesting an end to the restriction.
“It’s disappointing to me that we’ve made little progress in the past 20 years in finding solutions to gun violence,” said Dr. Nina Agrawal, who’s been a pediatrician in the South Bronx for years. “In my career, I’ve seen children lives saved from measles, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, motor vehicle accidents…because of federal scientific data and research. It’s frustrating that the CDC is not permitted to do the same type of research for gun violence.”
Instead, GOP leaders have tried to make gun violence an issue that requires mental health research, despite the fact that less than 3 percent of U.S. crimes involve someone with a mental illness. And the most recent argument against CDC-funded research is that “a gun is not a disease” — even though the CDC has been researching motor vehicles, natural disasters, poor ventilation systems, and many other topics that wouldn’t be labeled a disease for years. The politicians behind these arguments have yet to suggest simply allocating money to another government agency.
“Politicians have put a gag order on public health research for gun violence only to score political points,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who also spoke at the event. “On public health matters, it’s critical we listen to doctors — not politicians.”
Some have tried to roll back these restrictions before. While President Barack Obama signed an executive order following the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut school shooting to restore funds to gun violence studies, Congress has consistently blocked all requests for funding. And the law itself remains in place.
Even the congressman who lent his name to the initial amendment, former Rep. Jay Dickey, has publicly expressed his regret for backing the bill. He lent his support to Wednesday’s press conference by sending a letter to Rep. Mike Thompson, chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, to read at the event.
“He was never in opposition of doing research, he was in opposition to using that to harm the Second Amendment,” Thompson explained, comparing the issue to past research on automobile deaths. “No one did it do do away with cars, because clearly you could end all auto deaths if you did away with cars. It’s ridiculous to jump to that conclusion. No one is calling [to do away with guns]. We’re calling for good public policy to get to the root of this problem we have.”
Rep. Price stressed that press events like this are key to influencing members of Congress who are currently in negotiations for an omnibus appropriations bill that could include changes to the Dickey Amendment. The doctors present all agreed that current policy is not working.
“Using emotions and belief systems to address policy is a bad idea and is going to get us nowhere. So to develop effective policy we must conduct evidence-based research,” said Dr. David Berman, a physician from St. Petersburg, Florida, who spoke. “Common sense dictates we need to do something about this.”
The event ended just a few hours before news broke of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.