The Hill: Distinguished Scholar Lyndon Haviland on how an obscure law hinders research on gun violence in America

September 9, 2019 | Press Releases & Announcements, SPH in the News

In an op-ed in The Hill over the weekend, Distinguished Scholar Lyndon Haviland described how a 20-year-old law effectively blocks research into why gun violence in the United States is increasing and how to prevent it.

Congress can’t even study gun violence unless it changes the law

By Lyndon Haviland, Opinion Contributor

September 7, 2019

Earlier this year, the House Appropriations Committee passed a spending bill allocating $50 million to study the impact of gun violence in America. It had nothing to do with expanding background checks, eliminating bump stocks, increasing waiting periods, or revisiting the ban on assault weapons. It was simply intended to give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) each $25 million to study the issue and identify ways to prevent gun deaths in America.

One would think even in today’s deeply divided political environment that Democrats and Republications would agree on funding government research to understand why gun violence is on the rise in America. But the funding set aside in the House bill to conduct it has little chance of gaining any support in the Senate, due a little-known law called the “Dickey Amendment.”

Lyndon Haviland

Distinguished Scholar Lyndon Haviland

Named after former Representative Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), the law passed back in 1996. And while it doesn’t specifically prohibit government funding from studying gun violence, it requires that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

The amendment was introduced after the National Rifle Association (NRA) wielded its influence in Congress when a 1993 CDC sponsored study found a correlation between guns in homes and a heightened risk of death. Since then, the Dickey law has paralyzed any attempt by Congress to utilize the strength and might of our nation’s largest public health research institution to even study gun violence issues.

“Clearly, at CDC 20 years ago … they got the message that if you fund research that angers the gun lobby, you risk substantial cuts to your budget.” That assessment from Daniel Webster at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research captures why nothing has been done at the federal level to gather data to help our country find solutions to the threat guns have on our public health.

“Nearly 40,000 Americans are killed by guns each year, and tens of thousands more are treated for gun injuries,” wrote House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). “Only by conducting scientific research on gun violence can we better understand the causes of this crisis and develop and implement a public health response to reduce gun injuries and deaths.”

She’s right. Few dispute the fact that gun violence has become a public health emergency in America. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost to it. Thousands more experience anxiety or traumatic stress from surviving it, witnessing it, or fearing that it could happen at any moment. And the growing number of people with mental illness committing it demands that we investigate the reasons why, so that we can try to prevent it.

Some states have taken matters into their own hands. The Washington state legislature recently gave a $1 million grant to the Firearm Injury and Policy Research Program to sidestep the Dickey Amendment’s freeze on federal research. But such limited funding pales in comparison to what’s needed to make a difference. It takes real dollars, federal dollars, like those earmarked in the House Appropriations bill currently before Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Even after the events of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkwood Heights, Pulse, Virginia Tech, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, El Paso and thousands of other mass shootings, the Dickey Amendment’s presence still looms large. It has effectively blocked any conclusive, federal funded scientific evidence as to why gun violence is increasing in our country. The government isn’t tracking it, and it’s never been studied.

As long as the Dickey Amendment is the law of the land, it never will.

Lyndon Haviland Dr.Ph., MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health & Health Policy