In a defeat for the National Rifle Association and a bit of progress for people who prefer not to be shot to death, Congress is poised to approve the first funding for research into gun violence in more than two decades.
On Tuesday, the House passed $25 million in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health to investigate gun violence as a public health crisis. The measure, tucked into a massive bipartisan spending agreement the Senate is expected to pass before the end of the week, was secured by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) nearly seven years to the day after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, killed 20 first graders and six adults.
“The funding for evidence-based research,” DeLauro said in a statement, “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. This is a major step forward,” she added, “to helping reduce the pain and suffering families endure every day due to the scourge of gun violence.”
The appropriation is tiny in the scheme of the $1.4 trillion year-end spending deal. And $25 million in funding is incommensurate to the challenge of addressing one of America’s leading causes of death. In 2017, nearly 40,000 Americans died by gun violence — 60 percent of those by suicide.
But the passage of any government funding at all will mark the end of an ignominious era. In 1993, research funded through the CDC found an association between home gun ownership and murders in the home. The NRA responded to this disclosure with anger, lobbying to defund the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC). When that proved a bridge too far, the gun lobby secured passage in 1996 of federal funding restrictions, known as the Dickey Amendment, that barred government-backed research for “gun control.” The language was ambiguous but created chilling effect across government, instituting a de facto ban that prevented the nation’s leading health agencies from research into gun violence. A former NCIPC director minced no words in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 telling reporters: “The scientific community has been terrorized by the NRA.”
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The NRA disputes the notion that the new funding agreement represents a setback for the gun lobby, underscoring that the text of the Dickey Amendment stands, even as Congress is formally de-fanging by giving the CDC and NIH explicit authority to investigate gun violence. “Everyone knows the NRA supports properly conducted research into the causes of violence,” says NRA media relations director Amy Hunter. “What we don’t support are taxpayer-funded efforts to weaponize the CDC for political ‘research’ favoring gun control. Fortunately, this legislation retains the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits the use of tax-payer funds to promote gun control.”
This week’s bipartisan movement to fund gun-violence research is another sign that the financially troubled gun group is no longer invincible inside the Beltway. “The significance of this achievement cannot be understated,” DeLauro said, while also marking the tragedy of the time and lives that have been lost: “Taking action should never have taken more than 20 years.”
This post has been updated to reflect the views of the NRA.