What Role Should the CDC Play in the Debate on Gun Violence?

By Elinor Aspegren (PZ ’20)

Signs with proclamations such as,“Enough is Enough” and “Am I Next?” dotted the streets of Washington DC at the March for Our Lives on March 24, 2018. The march’s purpose was to advocate for increased gun control policy, largely calling for a ban on assault weapons in response to a recent school shooting.

But a federal weapons assault ban has already been tried — in 1994 — and according to a study done by the  Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, the ban had little effect in criminal activity. Many policy experts are calling for a provision to be eliminated from the federal budget —the 1996 Dickey Rider amendment. This amendment states that the information center Center for Disease Control  (CDC) should not allocate any funding to gun specific advocacy. Repealing the Dickey Rider amendment would help both a mistrust in research and allow gun violence to be treated more as a public health problem.

The CDC, while best known for fighting diseases, has a broader scope of study. The agency examines drownings, accidental falls, traumatic brain injuries, car crashes, suicides, and more. While mass shootings grab headlines, they account for only a small fraction of the 30,000 gun deaths a year in the United States. More than half of annual gun deaths are suicides. The Dickey Rider has restricted both the research on gun violence in mass shootings and on gun ownership as the risk factor in suicides, because people fear the CDC doing research on guns because they are afraid of bias.

Since the Dickey Rider amendment went into effect, researchers at the CDC have largely avoided conducting studies about firearms, with the fear that to propose a scientific examination of the issue would be perceived as a promotion of gun control and could cost them federal funds. Because there could not be a collection of data so that the CDC and others could advocate for gun control, research stopped altogether.

One perspective holds that the CDC itself is fundamentally biased against gun ownership, as they have advocated researching strategies to reduce the number of guns in the U.S. Some policy experts in Congress have stated that they want to change country mindsets through a public health campaign which hugely alarmed many in the country.

President Obama signed an executive order in 2013 directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct research through National Institutes of Health and the CDC regarding gun violence after the Sandy Hook shooting, but the program only published one report because funding still wasn’t given. Since then, there have been at least 30 mass shootings, not to mention the countless shootings of African Americans and others. On March 23, 2018, President Trump signed a spending bill that the CDC can, in fact, study the causes of gun violence. Inside the bill, there is one sentence noting that the secretary has stated that the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.

Some, however, do not think that this will aid the CDC in doing a specific type or research on gun violence. True, the CDC has already given funding to experts to study gang violence, but it is unlikely to pursue other research.

Many believe that there is no way that the CDC will examine solutions that threaten the current view on gun sales. What’s more, there’s no new funding put toward gun violence research. Yet, this is a start—Trump, by signing off on this bill, is paving a way for scientific research on gun violence to be less mistrusted.

Despite the Dickey Rider remaining in place and acting as a sort of gag order on federally funded research, experts and scientists have still done research — which shows that stronger firearm policies in general, and stronger laws regulating permits to purchase and background checks, can substantially decrease firearm homicides. Still, there is so much not known—which is why restoring federal support for research is so crucial to finding those solutions.


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