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Government Spending Bill Could Change How Health Agencies Study Guns

Mar 22, 2018
Originally published on March 22, 2018 5:47 pm
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The new government spending bill working its way through Congress contains some language about research on gun violence. For two decades, government health agencies have shied away from doing studies on guns. Some say that's about to change because of what's in this spending bill. But as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, others are more skeptical.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Every year, guns kill more than 35,000 Americans and cause about 80,000 injuries. But good luck finding anything on guns if you go to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation's premier public health agency.

Go up to the search box, type in guns, and the first thing that comes up is nail gun safety. Then you've got something about a comic, more nail gun injuries.

There's almost nothing on firearms, and here's why. Back in 1996, Congress passed something called the Dickey Amendment. It said that none of the funds given to the CDC for injury prevention could be used to advocate or promote gun control. It was pushed by the gun lobby and had an immediate chilling effect as people at the CDC feared that Congress would cut their funding if they pursued research on controversial questions about guns. The former lawmaker who sponsored that federal law, Jay Dickey, later said he regretted it. Three years ago, he told NPR he didn't intend to cut off all gun research.

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JAY DICKEY: It wasn't necessary that all research stop. It just couldn't be the collection of data so that they can advocate gun control. But for some reason, it just stopped altogether.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Recent shootings have forced government officials to address this. The secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, spoke to lawmakers on Capitol Hill in February days after the Parkland shooting in Florida. He was asked about the Dickey Amendment or rider.

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ALEX AZAR: My understanding is that the rider does not in any way impede our ability to conduct our research mission.

KATHY CASTOR: So will you...

AZAR: It is simply about advocacy.

CASTOR: But will you proactively speak out?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Florida, pressed him on whether he would instruct the agencies he leads to do gun research.

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AZAR: We certainly will. Our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we're in the science business and the evidence-generating business. And...

CASTOR: Thank you.

AZAR: ...So I will have our agency certainly be working in this field.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: As mild as his remarks were, they made headlines. And now the big government spending bill expected to be passed by Congress explicitly refers to those comments. Inside some agency instructions that accompany the bill, there's one sentence noting that the secretary has stated that the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence. Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat from Florida, describes it this way.

STEPHANIE MURPHY: A huge victory for our country and our communities and our children.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says it effectively repeals the Dickey Amendment that has long kept the CDC from doing gun research. But others aren't so sure.

DANIEL WEBSTER: I'm not particularly optimistic that anything will change.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Daniel Webster is a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He's actually gotten funds from the CDC to study gun violence prevention. He says the agency has been willing to look at things like the effect of mediating disputes between gangs.

WEBSTER: But the CDC has not, and I don't believe they will, examine other kind of interventions or other kind of solutions to the problem that have any sort of connection or threat to people who make their living selling guns.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says in this political climate there's still no way the CDC is going to examine solutions that threaten the status quo on gun ownership and sales. What's more, he says this giant spending bill contains no new funding for research on gun violence. Georges Benjamin is executive director of the American Public Health Association. He says in an ideal world, Congress would have done something much bolder.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: I would have preferred the Dickey language to be removed, strong language that says, yes, research is permissible and money.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he believes this is a start and that the intent was to make research more possible. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.