The House is expected to vote Tuesday on a bipartisan spending bill that, for the first time in more than 20 years, would appropriate a specific amount of public funding explicitly for research into gun violence, which kills nearly 40,000 Americans each year.
The bill includes $25 million in funding for research, split evenly between the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts say the new allocation will allow researchers to conduct large-scale studies that get at the root causes of gun violence while ensuring that firearm regulation does not infringe on Second Amendment rights.
“It’s discovering what science can do for a problem like this. If you look at what science can do for heart disease, for cancer. It’s saved tens of thousands of lives,” said Mark Rosenberg, former director of CDC research on firearm violence. “This is going to unlock a vein of pure gold that people on both sides of the aisle will appreciate.”
The House vote comes just days after the seventh anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 26 people, including 20 children. It also comes amid a year that has seen nearly 400 mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot or killed, not counting the shooter), according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, including high-profile shootings in El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said he and his team of researchers have long relied on meager public funding and private grants that limit the scope of their research by forcing them to draw correlations between available data setsrather than conduct more in-depth studies that collect data on firearm access.
“Very, very rarely are we able to say, ‘Are the people…who are the target of a law, can you document that their misuse of firearms is targeted by this law?’ That’s a far more compelling piece of causal evidence than a correlation with population-level data,” Webster said.
“And on the other side of that, for studies that look at law-abiding gun owners, how did these laws affect your capacity to get a gun? These are basic, fundamental questions that we have very little data on that this new funding could open up,” he said.
Gun control advocates applauded the funding.
“Make no mistake, the passage of this bill marks an important victory for the gun safety movement – for the first time in more than 20 years, Congress will be appropriating funding specifically for research on gun violence, which now kills more Americans than car accidents,” John Feinblatt, president of the anti-gun-violence nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a press release.
Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, co-founder of the eponymous gun violence prevention organization, said in a press release that the bill demonstrates a “change” in the country’s approach to gun violence.
“For far too long, the United States Congress put the political agenda of the gun lobby over our nation’s public health and safety. But today, with outraged Americans demanding solutions to gun violence and a new gun safety majority elected to the House of Representatives, change is happening,” Giffords said.
If approved, the bill would be the first to include funding explicitly for gun safety research since 1996.
That year, Congress – under pressure from the NRA – approved the Dickey Amendment, which stated that the CDC could not “advocate or promote gun control.” Congress also slashed CDC funding by $2.6 million, the same amount that the center had spent on firearm violence research the previous year.
While the Dickey Amendment did specifically ban research on gun violence, it had a “chilling effect” on the field, Webster said. It spurred the CDC to avoid research on firearms regulation and discouraged young researchers from pursuing the field.
“The true chilling effect was the pull-back of funds and the strong signal from Congress that, if you fund research that the gun lobby isn’t happy with, expect funding cuts,” Webster said.
Rosenberg, who directed CDC research on firearm violence at the time, said the Dickey Amendment reduced gun violence research to “a trickle.” Between 1998 and 2012, the number of publications about gun violence declined 64%, according to a 2017 study by medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
“(The amendment) was a warning, a shot across the bow,” Rosenberg said. “It told researchers that, if you want to research gun violence, we can make your life miserable.”
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Then-representative Jay Dickey, R-Arkansas, who sponsored the amendment, later reversed his position and penned an op-ed in the Washington Post with Rosenberg, explaining the need for gun safety research and noting that there had been “almost no publicly funded research on firearm injuries” since 1996. In the op-ed, the authors admitted that “one of us served as the NRA’s point person in Congress.”
Last year, lawmakers clarified the language of the Dickey Amendment, making clear that it does not prevent research into gun violence.
The new funding is baked into a $1.37 trillion spending package that also includes money for President Donald Trump’s border wall and increases the age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21.
The package was released Monday and must pass in Congress and be signed by Trump by Friday, when the government is set to run out of funding.
The NRA did not immediately respond to request for comment.