Congressional Democrats Call for More Gun Violence Research

Report, House bill draw attention to lack of federal funding

Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy sponsored a bill that could lead to more federal funding for gun violence research. (Bill Clark/Roll Call)
Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy sponsored a bill that could lead to more federal funding for gun violence research. (Bill Clark/Roll Call)
Posted October 19, 2017 at 5:01am

Congressional Democrats have launched renewed calls for federal research into gun violence prevention in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday presented a report from the Government Accountability Office highlighting the limitations lawmakers have imposed on researchers attempting to understand gun violence, which they called a “public health crisis.”

“If we want this wave of gun violence to end, we need better information about what is causing it and what could be done to prevent it,” said Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey.

And dozens of House Democrats have in recent weeks signed on to a bill that would repeal the so-called Dickey amendment, which prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services from spending federal money “to advocate or promote gun control.” The 20-year-old provision is widely considered to have frozen federal investment in gun violence research.

10 Years of Congressional Efforts on Gun Control

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“We should be fact-driven in the way that we legislate,” said the bill’s sponsor, Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy.

Murphy, whose district includes Orlando, first introduced the bill in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016. As of Wednesday, the bill had 97 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

The calls for more research come as Republicans are backing off legislation that would ban bump stocks, the device that Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock used when he sprayed the crowd at a country music festival this month with almost continuous fire. Bump stocks attach to legal semi-automatic rifles and effectively turn them into fully automatic weapons. Paddock killed 58 people and wounded at least 500.

Gun rights groups and some conservative media say the Dickey amendment helped curb “openly biased” research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They say the number of gun-related journal articles has remained constant in the years since.

“The National Rifle Association is not opposed to research that would encourage the safe and responsible use of firearms and reduce the number of firearm-related deaths. Safety has been at the core of the NRA mission since its inception. However, firearm safety is not the goal of the advocates seeking CDC funding — gun control is,” said Catherine Mortensen, a National Rifle Association spokeswoman.

Finding shortages

The GAO study was requested by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that funds HHS. It was meant to review programs that promote safe firearm storage practices.

After a survey of existing research, the authors concluded that following safe firearm storage practices reduced the likelihood of injury and death. It also highlighted some programs that work, including Seattle Children’s hospital distributing trigger locks and lock boxes. But the report’s main conclusion is that safe storage and other gun safety issues have “not been widely studied” due to “a lack of funding and data.”

The report blamed much of the problem on the Dickey amendment and an accompanying reduction in the CDC budget equivalent to the amount it had spent on firearms-related research. Since the amendment went into effect in 1997, federal health officials have mostly limited their research to firearms-related injury and death data collection.

Firearms resulted in 85,000 emergency room visits and 36,000 deaths in 2015, the GAO report said. Those injuries and deaths cost the United States $48 billion annually in medical bills and loss of productivity, according to the CDC.

In contrast, the GAO report found that the government has spent at least $22 million between 1995 and 2016 on programs related to gun safety. That includes grants from the Justice Department to educate gun owners on proper storage or help gun manufacturers research safer technologies. It also includes funding from the National Institutes of Health and CDC to examine the relationship between alcohol and gun violence and to educate different populations about gun safety.

The report said there were several implications of the lack of government spending in this area, including limiting the number of experts in the field, since researchers will instead focus on areas with funding opportunities.

Emphasizing research

Murray said Wednesday that the research needs to be prioritized.

“Compared to other leading causes of death and injury, there is much more we need to learn about gun violence, including how to better promote safe storage,” Murray said. “This is one of the leading causes of death in our country, but it is one of the ones we have researched the least.”

Other gun control advocates speaking alongside Murray Wednesday said they hoped the federal government would initially allocate $100 million annually for gun violence research, which would match what it spent before the Dickey amendment was passed.

“That’s a good place to start and may catch up for the deficit that we’ve had for a very long time,” said Kris Brown, a co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. She and Murray emphasized research on safe storage and the causes of gun violence as two high-priority areas.

Similar calls for federally supported gun violence research have followed previous mass shootings.

“I put the prospects of repeal of the Dickey amendment squarely between no and no way,” said former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York. “It’s so frustrating. We fund research into car accidents, fires, natural disasters. The only thing we don’t adequately and directly fund is gun violence, which kills more people.”

Israel recently wrote a book, “Big Guns,” inspired by the seven years of drawn-out debates over the provision he witnessed on the House Appropriations Committee. He served there from 2006 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2016.