But we don’t have to stay stuck, or push blindly ahead. Public health science can get us the answers that we need. Starting in the 1980s, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began a scientific research program to find out what works to prevent gun violence. But in 1996 Congress, with prodding from the NRA, threatened the gun violence research that was being done by CDC. Part of the effort to stop gun violence research at CDC was the “Dickey Amendment,” which said that none of the federal funds for CDC’s injury center could be used “to promote or advocate gun control.” The Dickey amendment did not prohibit research, but prohibited lobbying for gun control legislation. It had a chilling effect. Soon the research effort at CDC was reduced by more than 90 percent. Congressman Dickey, the author of the amendment, later reversed his position and called for bipartisan collaboration to restore funding for research to find interventions that both reduce gun violence and protect gun rights.
It would not take much to restart this effort at CDC, an agency which houses the largest collection of violence prevention professionals of any place in the world. In the 1960s, Congress saw that young people were being killed on our highways at unacceptably high rates and they appropriated $200 million annually for research that led to safer cars, safer roads, and safer drivers. This research has saved more than 350,000 lives — all done without banning cars. Investments in gun violence prevention research through CDC can yield results that are every bit as impressive.
Scientists at CDC are anxious to do this research, but the recent directors of CDC have been willing to let this eminently solvable problem fester because they fear that the NRA will prod Congress into cutting public health programs that are viewed as more central and critical to CDC’s mission, fighting infectious diseases like ebola or influenza and chronic diseases like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and stroke.
We are caught in a cycle that we need to break out of. Congress and CDC’s directors are afraid to tackle the problem of gun violence, so scientists can’t provide guidance to legislators about what gun violence prevention interventions would be both safe and effective. More people are killed by guns, there are more and deadlier mass shootings; people become more afraid and, out of fear, they buy more guns; and the toll of gun violence goes up, and on and on in a vicious, deadly cycle.
Fear on top of fatalism is a particularly deadly mix. Silence and shouting won’t solve the problem — but science can and the time to move is now.
Dr. Mark L. Rosenberg is a grandfather, president emeritus of the Task Force for Global Health in Decatur, and was the founding director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, where he retired as assistant surgeon general after 20 years of government service.