The federal funding bill signed last week by President Donald Trump included a clarification that the Centers for Disease Control “has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.”
But will it result in more federal studies of the issue? We asked some of the nation’s leading gun violence researchers for their thoughts.
The short answer: Prominent researchers in the field do not believe anything will change at the CDC — or at least not yet. They say the CDC needs to show them the money.
In the words of Garen Wintemute, a gun-violence researcher at the University of California/Davis, the language “accomplishes very little.” He added: “There’s no funding. There’s no agreement to provide funding. There isn’t even encouragement.” His frustration was echoed by many researchers we spoke with: Congress just told the CDC it’s permissable to fund some of these studies, but didn’t provide any money for actually doing so.
Here’s the 2018 budget for the Intentional Injury division of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which is the branch of the CDC that researches violence. Almost all of the increase from last year comes from a boost in funding for studies of rape prevention — an important issue, to be sure.
Note, though, that there is no funding specifically set aside for firearms research.
When Congress wants the CDC to study a problem and how to reduce it, lawmakers approve funding for that specific purpose. See for example the grants of between $750,000 to $1 million that the CDC is making available to states for projects including research into preventing opiate and heroin abuse.
Matthew Miller, a professor of health sciences at Northeastern University and co-director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, said the new spending language “doesn’t fill us with hope. It falls woefully short of what is needed.”
Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health was more pointed: he views the clarifier as “a cynical nod to critics who want the CDC to fund gun-related research” while leaving in place the Dickey Amendment, a 1996 directive that stipulates that no CDC funds “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” in place. The clarification in the budget, he notes, only allows research into the causes of gun violence — but not remedies. He explained further:
“With the new language, they could study why some kids bring a gun into a school and shoot their classmates and teachers (probably with special attention to mental illness and violent video games) or examine the underlying reasons that men shoot their estranged intimate partners. Funding could not examine solutions, especially not solutions that threatens the status quo on gun commerce and ownership.”
Still, the language could be politically useful, said Mark Rosenberg, the former head of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. The new budget acknowledges the importance of gun violence research, and leaves the Dickey Amendment to reassure the GOP of objectivity.
Remember: The CDC has never been explicitly banned from researching gun violence.
If public health researchers want to get federal backing for work on guns, Rosenberg told us, “It’s very important to build the trust of people who are strongly committed to gun rights.” And that could be harder to do if the Dickey Amendment were completely gutted, he believes.