Firearm injuries are the third leading cause of death for American children, behind only accidents and drowning. This fact has led Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to rather reasonably suggest that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study the causes of gun injuries and death. But, in an interview with CBS This Morning CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield explained that no research has started. Why? Redfield’s agency has no money to do it because politicians, frightened or subsidized by the NRA, refuse to allocate funding to figure out how and why kids get shot.
And a lot of kids get shot. Some 26,000 children have died from gunshots since 1996. That’s a number taken from the National Violent Death Reporting System that comes with very little context because, when it comes to gun deaths and injuries, the CDC can only look on in horror.
“The issue will be if Congress can give us funding to expand the research that we’re already able to do,” Redfield told CBS “The (HHS) secretary has made it clear that we do not have a restriction to do research. Basically what we need to do is get a funding mechanism for Congress to instruct us to do that research.”
The CDC’s current predicament in regards to gun death and injury research is a hangover from a perniciously partisan bit of legislation called the Dickey Amendment. Added to the omnibus spending bill of 1996 at the behest of the National Rifle Association, the amendment stated: “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
The amendment was largely understood to be a ban on gun injury and death research by the CDC and worked to effectively shut down any studies that might look into the cause of gun violence. The language seems to ask researchers to speculate on the possible outcomes of the research before actually asking for funds. That means any study that could even hint that gun violence is linked to gun access would be a non-starter.
The Dickey amendment has been re-upped in every spending bill since 1996. Though President Obama did attempt to thwart the amendment after the Newton massacre in 2012. He purposefully directed the CDC to take up research to find the causes of gun violence and seek preventative measures, but the agency failed to act because Dickey was still in place. That said, Congress offered new guidance to the amendment in 2018, stating explicitly that while the CDC can study gun violence it cannot do so using appropriated funds — essentially any money received from taxpayers. So, Dr. Redfield is stuck.
Because the spending bill says taxpayer money can’t be used, Redfield has to go on television and ask for a “funding mechanism” to get federal monies not tied to taxpayers. That’s a huge ask. Particularly when CDC funding, in general, has been slashed.
One of the biggest issues behind funding challenges faced by Redfield is the fact that Congress cut $750 million from the Prevention and Public Health Fund (PPHF) in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act so it could cover costs of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The PPHF was part of the Affordable care act and covered a full 12 percent of the CDC’s budget. The current CDC budget is so austere it would best be described as pro-death.
How much taxpayer money would it take to fund gun research? By comparison, not very much. Consider the CDCs most recent budget. The biggest expenditure, by far, is on the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control on which the CDC spends around $350,000 annually. Funding gun violence research would most likely not come anywhere near that expensive.
So why must Redfield try and force the hand of Congress? Because Republicans fear that any research would give gun control advocates data to back up common sense gun laws. That’s truly the only reason politicians would be reticent to fund the research. Surely it isn’t because they don’t have a problem with kids being shot.
But it is very possible that research into gun violence could also help extricate the issue from partisan wrangling. The fact is that research could possibly find a place where gun control advocates and proponents of the 2nd Amendment can find common ground. It’s possible that research could point to best practices for gun safety that all citizens can advocate for. It’s possible that research could find that gun ownership writ large is not the problem but storage and education is. But we literally can’t know that unless the research is funded.
Gun ownership is enshrined in the second amendment of the constitution and will continue to be upheld and protected by the supreme court. That much is very clear. But if that’s the reality we live in, then why would we not want research to show us how to make that reality as safe for American citizens and children as possible?