The Need to Understand Gun Violence as a Public Health Issue

February 27th, 2018 by CHHS RAs

Photo Credit:  RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images

By CHHS Extern Kirby McMahon

Following the tragedy in Parkland, Florida on February 15, 2018, a number of actions have been proposed to help stop the growing trend of gun violence in America. Amid the calls for reform, there is a growing movement to repeal the Dickey Amendment. The Dickey Amendment is a 1996 bill, which provides that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Since 1996, firearms have become something of a taboo subject at the CDC, with the CDC even asking researchers for a “heads up” when they publish studies that have “anything to do with firearms.” As a result, we have an extremely limited understanding of gun violence. But as gun-related fatalities continue to rise in America, the need for gun violence research becomes increasingly clear.

I. The Dickey Amendment

The Dickey Amendment was born as a result of intense partisanship and fierce lobbying efforts by the NRA. In the early 1990s, the CDC conducted several studies relating to gun violence and gun ownership. The NRA felt that these studies were biased against them and unduly promoted gun control. In response, the NRA embarked on an intense lobbying movement to prevent similar studies from being conducted. Subsequently, the Dickey Amendment, named after its author Jay Dickey, an Arkansas congressman, was included in the 1996 federal omnibus spending bill and passed into law. The Dickey Amendment does not explicitly prohibit the research of firearms. Rather, it forbids research that may be perceived to advocate for increased gun control. However, this standard has only created confusion as to what is allowed, and researchers and federal employees are unwilling to risk their careers to figure out what is and is not permitted under the amendment. As a result, research on gun violence has become a veritable no man’s land, where few researchers are willing to venture and enhance our understanding of gun violence.

II. The Present State of Gun Violence Research

The CDC tracks a vast array of causes of death, ranging from car crashes, accidents, suicides, drowning, and more. As many critics of the Dickey Amendment are eager to point out, the United States spends $240 million a year on traffic safety research, over $233 million on food safety, and over $331 million a year on the effects of tobacco, and virtually nothing on gun violence. As a result, our understanding of gun violence is woefully incomplete, nobody really knows how to prevent gun violence. Mark Rosenberg, who oversaw the CDC’s gun violence research in the 1990s, stated that “in the area of what works to prevent shootings, we know almost nothing.” Even Jay Dickey, the author of the amendment, has called for its repeal, citing a need to understand the underlying causes of gun violence.

Predictably, this deficiency in understanding gun violence has led to ineffective and disjointed gun violence legislation. Congress is unable to pass meaningful legislation because nobody knows how to prevent gun violence. Moreover, firearms remain a fiercely partisan issue. Many congressmen refuse to broach the subject of gun reform due to fear of reprisals from the NRA. Recently, there have been some indications that Congress may be willing to allow for more extensive research on gun violence. However, it appears unlikely that Congress will come to a consensus on the appropriate course of action, and, therefore, the topic of gun violence will remain in limbo. In order for Congress to enact meaningful and effective reform, Congress must have a more thorough understanding of gun violence. And in order to better understand gun violence, the Dickey Amendment must be repealed so that the issue can be researched as a public health issue.

III. Gun Violence as a Public Health Issue

As previously mentioned, the CDC researches a myriad of public health related issues, ranging from chronic illness to traffic injuries. However, gun violence, which accounts for over 30,000 deaths per year, receives virtually no funding and remains virtually unstudied. By contrast, throughout the 20th century the federal government funneled billions of dollars into researching automobile accidents. As a result of this research, the federal government gained a better understanding of the underlying causes of these crashes, implemented effective regulation, and oversaw a 90% decrease in fatalities from automobile accidents. Meanwhile, deaths from gun violence have been on the rise, but the science behind this issue remains stagnant.

In order to stop the increase of gun violence fatalities, it is imperative that the United States commits to a comprehensive study of gun violence. As Mark Rosenberg explains, “[y]ou can’t lock up the science for 20 years and try to proceed by yelling.” The United States must allow science, not emotion and partisanship, to dictate gun reform. The Dickey Amendment was a political response to a scientific issue. The CDC has repeatedly proven that scientific research of public health issues can lead to significant reductions in fatalities from those causes. CDC and NIH studies in drownings, traffic injuries, infectious disease, and many more topics have contributed to significant reductions in fatalities. It is time that the CDC is allowed to conduct comprehensive research on gun violence, and promulgate effective gun violence reform. Therefore, it is time that the Dickey Amendment be repealed.

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