For many years, Rosenberg says he, too, believed that the Dickey Amendment was responsible for gutting gun-violence research at the CDC. But then he developed an unlikely friendship with Dickey, who told The Trace in December he now regrets his amendment.
“He pointed out to me, ‘Wait a minute, Mark, Congress and the NRA didn’t stop CDC from doing gun-violence research. CDC stopped itself from doing this research,’” Rosenberg says.
Indeed, the language of the Dickey Amendment does not explicitly prohibit the agency from conducting research on gun violence, but only from advocating gun control. Rosenberg believes that distinction presents the CDC with an opening.
“It’s important to remember that there is no law preventing gun-violence research,” he says. “CDC leaders have decided that they don’t want to do gun-violence research because it’s too much of a hot potato.”
The CDC says that critics of the agency’s policies on gun research fail to comprehend its budget constraints. Houry, the current Injury Center director, says the Dickey Amendment left the agency with “very limited discretionary funding ” for gun-violence research. Last year, the agency said it didn’t spend any money on firearm-injury prevention research.
Houry says gun violence is still studied to some extent. For example, she says, the agency collects information on gun violence through sources like WISQARS, its general injury database. That database categorizes deaths, including those caused by guns, like accidental shootings and suicides. The CDC makes that information available to researchers, but does not conduct further analysis.
“If a gun is the cause, that’s recorded,” explained producer Todd Zwillich in a public radio report on the Dickey Amendment. “It’s not like they ignore it entirely. But gun deaths and gun injuries as a public-health issue are still basically anathema to CDC researchers and anyone who gets CDC funding, which is potentially millions of dollars.”
Garen Wintemute, a gun-violence researcher at the University of California at Davis, says data collection is useful, but doesn’t amount to research.
Last year, researchers were cheered by a CDC study on gun violence in Wilmington, Delaware, a city that experiences one of the highest murder rates in the country. It had been so long since the agency had offered any independent research on gun violence that many public health experts viewed the report as a positive sign that attitudes were changing within the CDC.
“It was a class act, a solid piece of work,” Wintemute says. But it failed to examine how gun ownership or availability might contribute to the area’s high crime rates—an indication, Wintemute says, that the agency remains reluctant to tackle guns head-on.
The Wilmington study was also not funded with money allocated for gun-violence research. The study was the product of the CDC’s “Epi-Aids” program, which assists state and local governments with public-health problems through the agency’s Epidemic Intelligence Service division.