The House GOP rejected a budget proposal this week to give $10 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence, once again zeroing out federal funding to study an epidemic that claims more than 33,000 lives in the United States each year.
Wednesday’s party-line vote would’ve been business as usual in most years. Congressional Republicans have been denying the CDC money for gun violence research for nearly two decades. But in March, they signaled a potential change when they passed a bipartisan spending bill with language specifically stating the CDC could study gun violence.
That measure, approved just a month after the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, came amid renewed debate about the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which bars the CDC from “advocating or promoting gun control.” The provision doesn’t explicitly prohibit gun violence research, but it has effectively starved it of federal funding.
Some gun safety groups saw the spending bill language as a sign that Congress might be changing course in response to the recent surge of advocacy demanding action to address the violence.
“In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting this past spring, we finally had a flicker of hope that the Dickey Amendment was repealed and done with,” said Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence, in a statement Thursday.
After the vote, “that hope has been snuffed out,” said Brown.
As a result, the obstacles to new gun research remain. Congress hasn’t funded a CDC study aimed at reducing harm from guns in at least 15 years, even as the American Medical Association now says shootings have become a “public health crisis.” A 2017 study concluded that gun violence research is “substantially underfunded and understudied relative to other leading causes of death.”
And it’s not just that Congress has refused to give gun violence research the money and support that experts say would help save lives. Scientists and other officials wary of the political fray around gun violence research have also self-censored, and without a secure funding stream, they’ll likely continue to focus on topics that are less wrapped up in Capitol Hill partisanship.
“The CDC already knows that their budget is safest when they stay clear of anything that might offend the gun lobby and the gun lobby’s friends in Congress,” said Daniel Webster, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has published a number of studies on gun violence.
With their vote this week, the March spending bill language appears to have been little more than a symbolic gesture. Although it may have been meant to look meaningful to some, gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association ― which lobbied for the Dickey Amendment and has fought efforts to study gun violence as a public health issue ― knew nothing had changed.
A spokesperson for the organization told The Washington Post in March that the spending bill language was clarifying only for “people who can’t read,” because the Dickey Amendment had never officially disallowed gun studies in the first place.
Still, years after the late former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) expressed regret that his amendment had chilled federal gun violence research so thoroughly, it’s clear that the issue continues to be a third rail in Congress. During debate this week on the CDC budget measure, Republicans said they were concerned that earmarking funds for gun research would derail the entire bill.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the appropriations committee, said he didn’t want to “spend my time on the floor” debating gun control, according to Politico.
“They’re free to research anything they care to research,” said Cole, arguing that people can apply for gun study grants under the CDC’s broader injury prevention program.
Gun violence prevention groups had initially asked for $50 million for research on firearms. The House GOP’s refusal to offer anything is proof that Republicans are intent on preserving the status quo, gun reform groups said.
“It’s simply astounding that House Republicans can’t be bothered to ‘spend their time’ discussing a crisis that kills 96 Americans every day,” said Avery Gardiner, co-president of Brady. “To those standing in the way of this important funding ― do your jobs or step aside.”