When Congress passed a government funding bill in late March, gun-control advocates scored one of their biggest legislative victories in decades.
An addendum to the legislative language formally clarified that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not prohibited from spending money on firearm-related research. The provision opened the door to, potentially, millions of dollars flowing into a scientific field that has been deprived of federal resources. But in the month since that funding bill passed, the CDC has not acted.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will seek to change that.
According to an aide, Schumer is scheduled to meet with CDC Director Robert Redfield in his office, during which he will aggressively push Redfield to commit to starting gun violence research.
Schumer’s ask will remain broad, the aide said. The senator has no specific pet research project in mind. He merely wants research to begin. But he will note that the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, has already publicly said he supports government funding of gun-related research, which leaves Redfield as the main obstacle in getting that research started.
Should Redfield agree, it would bring a final end to a decades-long prohibition on gun-related research that began almost by accident.
In the spring of 1996, Rep. Jay Dickey (R-AR) introduced an amendment that stripped the CDC of any funding that it used to study guns for that year. His proposal was seen, at the time, as a way to mollify the National Rifle Association’s push to defund the CDC’s entire $46 million budget for the National Center for Injury Prevention, from which the gun-related research money was drawn.
But the language of the amendment proved to be overly vague and subject to interpretation. Dickey had wanted to stop any gun-control advocacy that could result from research. But federal officials interpreted the text —“None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control”—as outlawing research entirely.
Later in his life, Dickey expressed regret with the outcome of his namesake amendment and even made the proactive case for the federal government to start looking into the causes of gun deaths.
“If we had somehow gotten the research going, we could have somehow found a solution to the gun violence without there being any restrictions on the Second Amendment,” Dickey said. “We could have used that all these years to develop the equivalent of that little small fence.”
But Congress never revised or clarified the language until this March following the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people.
“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,” the accompanying language to the omnibus bill read.
Since then, the National Institutes of Health has announced that it was awarding grant money to researchers to study ways to prevent shootings involving children. But Schumer, who negotiated the revision of the Dickey amendment, wants something wholly different: for the CDC, not an outside researcher, to begin studying the matter on its own.
“This is the first time Congress has spoken on this issue in decades and now there is clear intent from Congress that research is allowed,” said a Schumer aide.