After a teenage gunman armed with a magazine-fed semi-automatic AR-15 rifle killed 17 people at a Florida high school on Feb. 14, 2018 in still another of the mass shootings that have become increasingly common in the U.S., a grieving nation, yet again, loudly debated what to do to prevent further violence. Some want tighter restrictions on gun ownership and the types of weapons that can be sold — particularly military-style assault weapons of the sort favored by mass killers. Opponents of gun control, in turn, counter that the real problem is mental health, not access to firearms, and once again are floating the idea that teachers should be allowed — and encouraged — to carry guns, so that they can respond to a school attack with deadly force.
Where's the Research?
What makes the impassioned public debate even more difficult to resolve is that there is relatively little federally-funded scientific research to shed light on how to prevent mass shootings — or firearm violence in general — from occurring. Many public health experts say the reason is the so-called Dickey Amendment, a rider in federal spending bills that blocks the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using funds allocated for injury prevention research to "advocate or promote gun control."
The rider gets its name from Jay Dickey, the late Republican congressman from Arkansas who first introduced the ban in 1996. At the time, it was coupled with elimination of funding for an existing CDC research effort focused on gun violence. Since then the rider has been inserted repeatedly into spending bills.
The Dickey Amendment doesn't completely ban any sort of research or data-gathering on firearm violence, CDC spokesperson Courtney Lenard explains via email. "CDC does not receive direct funding for firearm-related research, but it does do data collection and research that includes firearms as one mechanism of these types of violence issues," Lenard writes.
But critics say the amendment has inhibited scientists from probing the tough questions. "Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear," researchers Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann and Dr. Frederick P. Rivara argued in this 2013 opinion piece 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."
What Spurred the Amendment?
Rivara says the Dickey Amendment was a reaction in part to studies such as this one that he, Kellermann and other researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine in October 1993. They found that having a gun in the home actually was associated with an increased risk of homicide rather than making a person safer. Such research "brought to people's attention the idea that gun violence was a public health problem," Rivara explains.
But the view of gun rights supporters was that the government-funded researchers were biased. "It's not objective data gun control advocates seek," Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action, argued in this 2015 opinion piece in Politico. "They have a predetermined outcome. Now, they just need some government-sponsored, taxpayer-funded data points to validate their anti-gun agenda."
Opponents of gun control in Congress reinforced the research ban. Two years after a 2009 study, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, found that individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession. Congress expanded the research restrictions to all agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services.
This ban expansion has had a profound impact. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Jan. 3, 2017 found that between 2004 and 2014, the U.S. saw about 350,000 firearms-related deaths. Based upon the amount of funding for research on other top causes of death, a statistical model predicted that gun research should have received nearly $1.4 billion in federal funding, and generated nearly 39,000 published studies. Instead, gun research got just $22.1 million, and produced only 1,738 studies in that period. (Here's a 2017 article from The Trace that explains the research.)
"I think it's set us back tremendously in terms of research on the impact of guns on public health," Dr. David Satcher, who headed the CDC at the time the Dickey Amendment originally was imposed, says. Satcher, who also later served as Surgeon General during the Clinton Administration, says the Dickey Amendment "sent a couple of messages. It said, you won't have the money, but also we don't want you doing the research."
Even Dickey Finally Favored Repeal
Satcher and others have noted that even the Dickey Amendment's author eventually came to see it as a mistake. In a 2012 opinion piece in The Washington Post, Dickey and Mark Rosenberg, who in the mid-1990s oversaw the CDC gun research that the amendment ended, wrote, "Firearm injuries will continue to claim far too many lives at home, at school, at work and at the movies until we start asking and answering the hard questions."
Rivara says he doesn't think it make any sense to impede federally-funded gun research when science has helped remedy other public health problems. Case in point: Motor vehicle fatalities have fallen dramatically since the 1990s. "Research into why people get hurt in cars, how to make roads safer and trauma care better contributed to the decrease," he notes. The effort to make roads safer was aided by federal and state efforts to systematically amass data — not just on fatalities, but also on the number of drivers and cars registered, driving records and other useful information.
When it comes to guns, in contrast, such national databases don't exist, and nobody even knows exactly how many guns there are in the U.S.
"If you can't measure it, you can't fix it," Rivara says. "That's the problem with guns."