Congressional deal could fund gun violence research for first time since 1990s


WASHINGTON – Congressional leaders reached a deal to fund research on gun violence for the first time in more than 20 years, a major legislative victory for Democrats, researchers and anti-gun-violence activists.

The deal — still pending final approval as congressional negotiations continue over a must-pass, end-of-year spending bill — would send $25 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to study gun violence, with each agency receiving $12.5 million, according to congressional aides.

In a statement, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) noted the deal comes almost exactly seven years after the devastating elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

“The epidemic of gun violence is a public health emergency,” said DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education. “Yet, for more than two decades, Congress has failed to provide any meaningful reforms.”

She said the federally funded research “will help us better understand the correlation between domestic violence and gun violence, how Americans can more safely store guns, and how we can intervene to reduce suicide by firearms.”

While gun violence is one of the country’s leading causes of death, it receives little research funding. As many people die because of gun violence, for example, as of sepsis infection, yet funding for gun research is less than 1 percent of that for sepsis, a 2017 analysis found.

“This is a deal of historic proportions,” said Mark Rosenberg, who was heading the CDC’s research on firearm violence in the 1990s when Congress abruptly cut off funding for the work. “It ends the horrendous position we’re in, where we don’t even know what works.”

“There’s much to be done,” said Garen Wintemute, a leading gun-violence researcher at University of California at Davis. “We will hopefully learn more about individual and social risk factors, consequences of exposure to violence, and effectiveness of prevention measures.”

The lack of money can be traced to a 1996 rule known as the Dickey Amendment, which was passed by Congress under pressure from gun lobbyists. Technically, the amendment forbids the CDC’s funding from being used to advocate for gun control. But the rule had a chilling effect, choking off grant money at federal agencies and essential data gathering on gun violence.

Rosenberg said he believed the work his staff members at the CDC were doing could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Their research came to a grinding halt when, along with passing the amendment, Congress took away $2.6 million from the CDC — the exact amount previously allocated to Rosenberg’s firearm research. The defunding sent a clear message to other federal agencies and to the researchers who depended on agency funding.

And it slowed research in the field to a crawl. The few studies conducted in years since have often been limited in scope and cobbled together with minor grants or university support.

In recent years, however, the political landscape has started to change with the steady, tragic and unending drumbeat of mass shootings. After a two-decade recruiting drought, gun researchers say they have seen a wave of young scientists entering their field. That new energy coincides with a resurgence of gun-control activism — led by the teenage Parkland student survivors — as well as increased interest from private foundations and state-level governments in funding such research.

The momentum has led to a slower but perceptible shift in the political calculus. Last year, congressional leaders took baby steps toward lifting what has amounted to a ban on federally funded gun research by issuing clarifying language — but no new money — for such research. The language made clear that the CDC can indeed conduct research into gun violence despite the Dickey Amendment.

The deal reached Monday would build on that language to give the CDC and the NIH money to start that research anew. The $25 million, however, falls short of the $50 million requested by Democrats in their original spending bill. And it is relatively small compared with other federally funded research. In 2018, for example, the NIH devoted $3 billion toward research on HIV/AIDS and $5.9 billion on brain disorders.

“In the grand scheme of things, $25 million is a pittance, but the important thing is, it starts the stream flowing again,” said Rosenberg, who continued working on gun violence prevention research after leaving the CDC and is now retired. He compared the current situation to the 1970s, when motor vehicle deaths reached worrying proportions. It took billions of dollars, decades of research and policy and the creation of a federal agency for highway safety to bring fatality rates down.

“The hope is that this is the beginning and that people will see the benefits of investment,” Rosenberg said. “That they’ll see saving lives from gun violence is a nonpartisan issue.”

Sarah Locke

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