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A $50 Million Fight Over Gun Research Funding

Yuval Rosenberg

As the gun-control debate rages on in the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, a key senator said Thursday that he would not support Democratic lawmakers’ calls to increase funding for gun violence research.

The Democratic-led House has already passed a spending bill that would provide $50 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health for “firearm injury and mortality prevention research.” The legislation, if enacted, would mark the first time in decades that Congress has designated funding specifically for gun violence research, according to Roll Call.

But Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, reportedly suggested Thursday that the specific funding wasn’t necessary and shouldn’t be included in the Senate version of the appropriations bill.

“There has never been a prohibition on HHS doing whatever research they want to do in this area,” Blunt said in a statement that also called for appropriators on his committee to steer clear of controversial issues and avoid attempts “to fund partisan priorities.”

Is federal research on gun violence prohibited? No, not explicitly. But as Roll Call’s Andrew Siddons explains, “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.’”

When that language — known as the Dickey Amendment after its author, former Republican Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas — was first introduced in legislation for fiscal 1997, the CDC lost $2.6 million from its budget, the same amount it had spent on firearm injury research the previous year. The CDC website says the agency interprets the appropriations language to mean that its funds cannot be spent on activities “designed to affect the passage of specific Federal, State, or local legislation intended to restrict or control the purchase or use of firearms.”

The result of the Dickey Amendment was a chilling effect on gun violence research. “Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear,” two doctors known for their research into firearm-related injuries and deaths wrote in a 2013 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency's funding to find out. Extramural support for firearm injury prevention research quickly dried up.”

A 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that gun violence was the subject of far less funding and fewer research publications than might be predicted based on comparisons with other leading causes of death. “Gun violence killed about as many individuals as sepsis,” the researchers wrote. “However, funding for gun violence research was about 0.7% of that for sepsis and publication volume about 4%. In relation to mortality rates, gun violence research was the least-researched cause of death and the second-least funded cause of death after falls.”

In the wake of the 2018 Parkland school shooting, lawmakers included language in a report accompanying spending legislation explicitly stating that “the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.” But the CDC has pointed to a lack of funding to dedicate to such research.

Why it matters, part 1: The dispute over $50 million, a small amount relative to the overall federal budget, is yet another sign of how difficult is for Congress to address the gun issue — and how unlikely it may be that President Trump and Congress take any substantive steps this time.

Why it matters, part 2: The funding issue is another area where Republicans and Democrats could potentially clash as they look to iron out spending bills for the coming fiscal year. “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,” Roll Call’s Siddons says.

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