CDC Scientists Plea to Congress: Let Us Research Gun Violence

February 16, 2018
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Charise Johnson
Former contributor

This past Wednesday, our nation bore witness as another gun-related tragedy unfolded, this time at a high school. Seventeen people were shot and killed, more than two dozen others wounded at Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida after a heavily armed, former student of the school brazenly opened fire on unsuspecting, innocent teachers and pupils. There have been 290 school shootings since 2013, 1,333 mass shootings since 2014, and 56,755 deaths by guns since 2014– yet our government does not deem gun violence to be a public health concern worth researching. We must support scientists to do the necessary work that would shed light on how to protect the public. How many firearm casualties must there be to justify use of federal investment for research into the safety of this country’s residents?

Government scientists understand the value in studying gun violence, but we won’t allow them to do their jobs. As my colleague mentioned yesterday, a policy rider that has been included in spending bills since 1996 effectively bans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence. The so called the Dickey amendment has not definitively outlawed research on gun violence and safety, but Congress “coincidentally” removed funding from the CDC to the exact amount it once spent on that research. This sends the message to CDC scientists that such research is strongly discouraged, deprioritized, and ultimately, it is not conducted.

Scientists Survey: Scientists Feel Restricted on Gun Research

Scientists are still feeling the effects of that decision two-decades later. In 2015, the Center for Science and Democracy (CSD) at UCS, long committed to protecting scientific integrity at federal agencies, conducted a survey of federal scientists, including scientists at the CDC. The purpose of the survey was to ascertain how scientists felt about the state of scientific integrity at their respective agencies, and to glean how effective science-based agencies were at meeting their missions. Several scientists at the CDC voiced their concerns about Congress and interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) interfering in their work – especially related to gun violence research. Here are a few of the most poignant comments from CDC scientists:

  • “The integrity of the scientific work would be improved if the National Rifle Association did not prevent CDC from doing more research on gun violence in the U.S.”
  • “…I am not aware of the instances where internal processes for CDC’s decisions and other activities have been inappropriately affected by influence from industry or related interest groups. Yet, it is fresh in my memory that due to the influence from the congress CDC has not been able to engage in research on guns. In my view the widespread availability of guns is a major public health issue of the U.S. The congressional influence has limited CDC’s capacity to address this issue, and I strongly hope the ‘ban’ be lifted in the future.”
  • “The main concern I have is about Congressional interference in scientific and epidemiological studies that relate to gun violence (i.e., cutting the funding for this type of research). This is a clear example of political interests preventing the advance of public health knowledge and practice.”

Earlier this week, CSD launched the most recent iteration of the scientist survey, adding scientists from 12 more agencies and bureaus to the list. It will be interesting to see if CDC respondents will have more or less to add on the issue of gun research this time around. Their (anonymous) input will be extremely useful for helping shape recommendations for agencies on scientific integrity, and potentially a good tool to push Congress toward finally allowing scientists to study how our nation might address this growing public health threat.

Yesterday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar kind of opened the door on lifting the research ban at CDC (which is a part of his agency), by telling Rep. Kathy Castor in a congressional hearing that he believes the “poison-pill” policy rider doesn’t prevent CDC scientists from doing their job. When asked if he would be more “proactive” on gun violence research at the CDC, Secretary Azar said that the agency will. Hopefully, congressional appropriators will see the secretary’s comments and remove this anti-science policy rider in the next spending agreement and CDC scientists will see an on-the-ground change where the agency leadership will encourage research on this public health crisis. You can bet that UCS will be looking to hold Secretary Azar and other administration leaders accountable and hold them to this commitment.

The families of victims need more than thoughts and prayers; they need action. They need policies. They need gun reform based on scientific research. And to do that, as policymakers have said themselves, we need data to ensure the most effective measures are taken.

Cara Loughran. Alyssa Alhadeff. Scott Beigel. Nicholas Dworet. Aaron Feis. Jaime Guttenberg. Chris Hixon. Peter Wang. Alaina Petty. Luke Hoyer. Carmen Schentrup. Joaquin Olivier. Meadow Pollack. Gina Montalto. Martin Duque. Alex Schachter. Helena Ramsay.

These are real people, just as the victims of every senseless act of gun violence are. They are not just statistics. Let’s have a moment of silence to reflect on their lives, their untimely deaths – but let’s not remain silent on pushing for gun violence safety research and science-based policies that can follow.