Editorial: Federal Restrictions on Gun Research Should Be Lifted

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Question: What do Parkinson's disease, sepsis, liver disease, gun violence, traffic accidents, poisoning, and nephritis have in common?
Answer: They all kill about 30,000 people a year in the United States (stated another way, about 10 deaths per 100,000 in the population).
Question: What do those conditions not have in common?
Answer: Federal research funding.
From 2004 to 2015, federal funding for research about firearm-related fatalities is only 1.6% of what one would predict it should be, based on the number of gun-related deaths [15]. Sepsis, for example, which causes about the same number of deaths, received over USD 3 billion during that time, compared to only USD 22 million for gun research [15]. In fact, looking only at fatalities from different conditions (as these statistics do) underestimates both morbidity and costs associated with gun-related harm, which disproportionately affects the young, robbing them of many productive years of work. Gun-related harm imposes heavy burdens both on the US healthcare system [5] and society at large [16].
That needs to change. The federal government's scientific-funding agencies—specifically the CDC and the NIH—need to reverse a two-decades-long neglect of a public-health problem that kills tens of thousands of people per year, and injures far more than that.
Neglect actually is the wrong word. The disproportion between funding for and harm caused by guns was entirely intentional, and explicitly legislative: Since 1997, the CDC has been constrained by an amendment to that year's Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act, which states that “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” [18]. Although the NIH was not explicitly restricted in that way until 2012 [17], it had generally followed suit, and only recently resumed funding work on this topic [11], and only on a small scale [14]. The CDC still does not [14], and has generally interpreted the vague language of the appropriations act to mean that no research on gun violence of any sort can be funded, and indeed, it has funded none [7].
While one can speculate about the reasons for the slight interagency difference in interpreting what has come to be called the Dickey Amendment—which has persisted in every appropriations bill since 1997—it is well worth noting that its author, Rep. Jay Dickey (a now-retired member of Congress from Arkansas) has had a change of heart. He recently suggested that the ban he sponsored 20 years ago should be lifted [2, 3]. Although President Barack Obama issued a memorandum to his Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2013 to lift the restrictions [13], the fact is that Congress holds the purse strings here, and I suspect this fact is well known both to the CDC and the NIH. After all, it was a CDC-funded study that sparked the firestorm leading to the Dickey Amendment [1, 8]. And to make sure the point was not missed, that year Congress cut the CDC's budget by precisely the amount it had spent the previous year on research related to firearms. The funding later was restored in joint conference committee, but it was earmarked for traumatic brain injury [7]. The point had been made.
It is time to change our approach, but change of this sort is difficult, largely because of lingering sensitivities on both sides of the debate. Perhaps we might find common cause on themes that most citizens agree upon. For example, a great deal has been made lately about the importance of reducing healthcare disparities.
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