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Gun research funding push faces challenge in Senate even after shootings

House-passed bill would be first time in decades Congress allocated funding specifically for gun violence research

Sen. Roy Blunt, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees health research funding, signaled he wouldn't support new funds for research on gun violence. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Roy Blunt, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees health research funding, signaled he wouldn't support new funds for research on gun violence. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats in Congress are amplifying their calls to fund more research on gun violence after the recent mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, but Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Chairman Roy Blunt suggested Thursday he wouldn’t support new funding in that area.

The dispute over $50 million for gun violence prevention research could pose an additional challenge in the effort to avoid a government shutdown this fall.

[Gun control legislation again faces political headwinds following three deadly shootings]

The House-passed fiscal 2020 Labor-HHS-Education spending bill would provide $25 million each to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to “better understand and prevent injury and death as a result of firearm violence.” If enacted, it would be the first time in decades Congress specifically allocated funding for gun violence research.

Even after the deaths of 31 people from shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio last weekend, a stalemate might make it harder to enact the relatively small amount of federal funding. While the administration says it would do the research if funding were provided, and Democrats want to provide it, congressional Republicans say the administration can use the money it already has.

[Trump opts against call for gun-control bill after Dayton and El Paso shootings]

Blunt, a Missouri Republican, suggested in a statement Thursday the funding wasn’t required and shouldn’t be included in the Senate version of the spending bill.

“The reason our committee was so successful last year is that we made the decision early to not open the bill to controversial issues,” he said in that statement, citing the House and Senate’s effort to pass the fiscal 2019 Labor-HHS-Education spending bill on time. “I’m hopeful we do the same thing this year, which would mean we wouldn’t change things that have been traditionally in the bill or attempt to fund partisan priorities.”

Blunt also said, “There has never been a prohibition on HHS doing whatever research they want to do in this area.”

While gun violence research by the federal government is not prohibited, language inserted in every Labor-HHS-Education spending measure for the past few decades has included language stating that no money can be spent “to advocate or promote gun control.” The provision is known as the Dickey amendment, after its original sponsor, former Republican Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas.

In a fiscal 1997, when the language was first enacted, the CDC lost an amount of funding equal to what it had been spending on firearms research. Since then, internal firearms-related research has been limited to simple descriptive data, and outside research that would normally be supported through federal grants has been chilled.

In the weeks following the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., Republicans and Democrats agreed the Dickey amendment doesn’t prevent general gun violence research. The committee report accompanying that year’s spending bill included language stating that “the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.”

But the Trump administration’s CDC says it hasn’t embarked on broader gun violence research because Congress hasn’t yet provided money specifically to do it.

So the House Appropriations Committee specifically proposed allocating the money in the fiscal 2020 spending measure.

“It has been more than 20 years without funding for this research, and the problem of gun violence has only gotten worse over that time period,” House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro said in a statement. The Connecticut Democrat said the money could be used to research ways to prevent gun-related suicide, studying the link between domestic violence and gun violence, and safe gun storage strategies.

“Congress needs to act to save lives, and the Senate needs to support this critical funding,” she said.

Obstacles ahead

Lawmakers had been optimistic the Labor-HHS-Education bill would be included in a package expected to clear Congress before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Still, signs were mounting that would be difficult to accomplish. While there was not yet an official topline spending level for the Senate’s Labor-HHS-Education bill, it is likely to be billions of dollars lower than the House version, which would provide $189.9 billion in base discretionary funding.

Democrats are not likely to look kindly upon potential plans by Senate Republicans to use billions of dollars the House had proposed for health and education programs on President Donald Trump’s southern border wall.

Yet pressure to do something about gun violence could throw another wrinkle into already difficult negotiations.

House and Senate leaders agreed in the bipartisan budget agreement for fiscal 2020 not to include partisan priorities in spending bills for the next two years. But Democrats are likely to argue the CDC and NIH funding doesn’t meet that definition because it is simply funding, not a contentious policy provision.

“There should be nothing partisan about researching our nation’s gun violence epidemic,” said Evan Hollander, spokesman for House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat. “If Republicans are sincere about preventing more massacres in our communities, they will join House Democrats to support research into how to prevent deaths and injuries from guns.”

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