The Corner

Politics & Policy

Reminder: There Has Never Been a Ban on Studying Gun Violence

Sign at a rally against guns and white supremacy in in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., August 6, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met around the country over the past few years who sincerely believe the study of “gun violence” was banned by the government. The misconception is almost surely driven by confusing pieces like this one in the Washington Post today, which claims that “Congressional deal could fund gun violence research for first time since 1990s.”

Hundreds of news stories over the past few years have maintained that the all-powerful NRA worked to institute a CDC “ban,” or an effective ban, including the above Washington Post piece. In truth, nothing has ever stopped the CDC from asking for specific funding to research “gun violence” if it pleased. Nothing has stopped the CDC from allocating its own funds for a study on gun violence.

The Dickey Amendment banned the CDC from using “funds made available for injury prevention and control” to be used to “advocate or promote gun control.” That law was passed after Dr. Mark Rosenberg, the head of gun research in 1990s, bragged that he was going to use CDC — already doing as shoddy work on firearms as it would later do on obesity — to engage in an ideological campaign against firearms.

Stories relaying the horrors of Dickey Amendment like to mention that Congress “stripped” funding from the CDC. It’s true that Congress cut $2.6 million in 1996. Since then the CDC’s budget has more than tripled to over six billion dollars.

In the 2018 spending bill, in fact, there was specific language included reminding the Centers for Disease Control that they are allowed to fund studies on “gun violence”: “While appropriations language prohibits the CDC and other agencies from using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.”

Most significantly, in 2012, Barack Obama, never much for following laws, signed 23 Executive Orders on gun violence, one of them directing the CDC to research “gun violence.”  The Atlantic pointed out that this was “The Executive Order the NRA Should Fear the Most.”

The CDC then funded — with congressional dollars — a study on gun violence in 2013.

(You might not have remembered “Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence” because it didn’t produce results that warranted much media attention. We learned, for instance, that “defensive uses of guns” are safer than other “self-protective strategies,” that the “number of public mass shootings of the type that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School accounted for a very small fraction of all firearm-related deaths,” that gun show “loophole” accounted “for only a small percentage of guns used by convicted criminals,” that the majority of gun violence is related to mental-health problems, among many other unhelpful things.)

None of this takes into account the fact that government already funds studies of gun violence outside the CDC. Not just through the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, as Dan McLaughlin pointed out last year, but through the NIH.

It’s important to remember, as well, that, despite the contentions of all the people interviewed in the Washington Post piece, hundreds of millions of private dollars have been meted out to research gun violence over the past two decades. If people are interested in gun studies, many already exist. The real problem for anti-gun activists hasn’t been a dearth of data, but the inability to use CDC as a political cudgel in the Second Amendment debate.


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