David Goldman, Associated Press file A 1996 amendment to a congressional spending bill prohibits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.”
WASHINGTON — For more than two decades, Congress has all but barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence — a restriction that liberal lawmakers and gun-control advocates again are trying to lift after last month’s shooting in Florida.
But the latest effort has an uphill climb at best if Colorado’s congressional delegation is any indication. While the idea enjoys support from the state’s Democrats, none of the Colorado’s five Republican lawmakers said they backed the idea and only one — U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor — directly answered questions from The Denver Post about the proposition.
U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, the only Colorado Republican in Congress to directly respond to The Denver Post’s questions about the Dickey amendment, said removing a restriction on federal gun research was akin to “singling out one constitutional right.”
“I have no problem with the CDC doing a study on mental health, but I do have a problem with them singling out one constitutional right,” Buck said in an interview.
It’s a stance that tracks with most GOP lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Congress, but opponents of the restriction said the limits on research make it more difficult to understand why Americans are several times more likely than citizens of other developed countries to be killed by guns.
“I am urging Congress to address gun violence in the same way that we do any other public health threat: with the active support of rigorous scientific research,” said Dr. Paul Chung, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics who spoke recently with gun-control activists from Giffords, a group founded by shooting survivor and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
The clamp on the CDC dates to 1996, when then-U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., successfully added language to a spending bill that prohibited the agency from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.”
While it didn’t specifically ban research, it was enough of a roadblock that the CDC has done little on the topic since spending about $2.6 billion on firearms research the year before the Dickey Amendment went into effect.
Congress has kept the measure in place the last two decades, even after Dickey himself argued it should be lifted.
“The same evidence-based approach that is saving millions of lives from motor-vehicle crashes, as well as from smoking, cancer and HIV/AIDS, can help reduce the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence,” wrote Dickey in an essay that ran in The Washington Post a week after 2012 Aurora theater shooting.
Florida shooting refocused attention on 1996 measure
There’s been a renewed push to remove the restriction since 17 people were shot to death Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., was one of several lawmakers who attended a Wednesday meeting at the White House to discuss gun safety and, after it was done, she said she raised the issue of lifting the gun research restriction with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who told her they would look into the issue.
“I’m hopeful that that means that we may be able to (get) their support on this,” Murphy said. Whether Congress goes along is another matter.
While Trump seemed open last week to the idea of new gun laws, including tougher background checks, Republican leaders in the House and Senate have advocated a narrower response to the Florida killings.
Buck, of Colorado, said some of the latest proposals — such as arming educators or raising the age limit for rifle purchases — should be left in the hands of state and local officials.
“ ‘One size fits all’ is really scary,” Buck said.
As for the CDC restriction, he said he had concerns about its potential effect on the agency’s reputation.
“I think it really politicizes an organization that does a really good job of staying out of a political sphere,” said Buck, who suggested those studies would be a better fit for the FBI or the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In contrast to the state’s Republicans, every Colorado Democrat in Congress said they wanted to eliminate the Dickey Amendment.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, has been a longtime advocate for the idea, and she signed onto a letter last month that called on congressional leaders to hold hearings on the topic.
The restriction is the “most extreme position against gun safety because it somehow infers that if the CDC did research on the effect of guns on health, that maybe that would lead to some factual discovery that would lead to some kind of gun safety legislation,” DeGette said.
Colorado, other states pick up gun research slack
The dearth of federal research into gun violence has prompted a few states to take steps to do the work themselves.
The University of California at Davis is moving forward with a new Firearm Violence Prevention Research Center with $5 million in state money — an idea that New Jersey is looking to duplicate, according to a new report by Stateline, which is part of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment does not “use any funding to do gun research per se,” according to Mark Salley, an agency spokesman.
But it “does use some of its funding to do public health surveillance related to gun injuries and deaths.”
That includes state-funded research into incidents in which a gun caused the death of a Colorado child, as well as input into a CDC-backed project that examines violent deaths, which includes firearm fatalities.
Gun-control advocates have applauded these state-level efforts, but they said that doesn’t diminish the need for federal government research.
“States are starting to now fill in the gap but … the federal government helps drive the research agenda in this country and has the resources to really make a lot of change,” said Mike McLively of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.