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EDITORIAL: Congress unblocks gun violence research
The Press Democrat - 12/28/2019
Dec. 28--Americans have no shortage of strong opinions about guns. But they have a lot less objective information about the causes of gun violence and the effectiveness of potential solutions than they have about other health and safety issues.
Why? Because Congress stopped funding gun violence research in 1996 -- three years before Columbine ushered in a frightening era of mass shootings.
More than 600,000 Americans have died from gunshot wounds since then.
But the funding drought is finally over.
Tucked into the federal spending bill signed last week by President Donald Trump is $25 million for gun safety research. The money will be divided between the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The sum is barely a rounding error in the $1.4 trillion spending bill, but the fact that Congress earmarked any money for gun violence research is a welcome breakthrough.
Congress invests billions of research dollars in everything from food and drug safety to renewable energy to public health threats. Policymakers and the public rely on these scientific studies; they shouldn't be left guessing about gun violence, which has become a national health emergency.
Private foundations and some states, including California, have tried to fill the gap since Congress cut off research funding for gun violence. But none of them can match the resources of the federal government -- or the unique qualifications of the NIH and CDC, agencies specifically dedicated to protecting the nation's health.
These agencies won't be deciding whether to ban assault weapons, require universal background checks or any of the other contested issues surrounding firearms. That's up to Congress, state legislatures and voters. However, in making those decisions, they will again have the benefit empirical studies from the nation's leading health researchers.
Is there a correlation between exposure to gun violence and future acts of violence? Are there more shootings in a states that allow people to openly carry weapons? Or fewer? Are shootings less frequent after red-flag laws are enacted?
Questions like these arise whenever there's a mass shooting or Congress considers gun legislation. But they have been off limits since 1996, when Congress enacted the Dickey amendment, which barred the use of federal money for research that "may be used to advocate or promote gun control."
The author, a Republican congressman from Arkansas named Jay Dickey, came to regret his role in cutting off federal research. In 2015, he joined Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, in an effort to lift the prohibition.
"Research could have continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners in the same fashion that the highway industry continued its research without eliminating the automobile," Dickey said in an NPR interview in 2015. He died two years later, with his namesake legislation still in place.
Independent research won't undermine anyone's Second Amendment rights, but it can provide the cold hard facts we need for an intelligent discussion of one of America's most intractable public health issues.
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