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The History — And Future — Of Gun Violence Research

In this Oct. 4, 2017, photo, a device called a "bump stock" is attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range in South Jordan, Utah.  (Rick Bowmer/AP)
In this Oct. 4, 2017, photo, a device called a "bump stock" is attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range in South Jordan, Utah. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Last month, Congress passed a spending bill that included language allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume “conducting research on the causes of gun violence.”

The Democrats who wrote that part of the bill intended to reverse the 1996 so-called Dickey Amendment, that banned the CDC from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.” The amendment didn’t directly ban research, but it had a chilling effect, and according to Dr. Mark Rosenberg, along with funding cuts, ended up reducing research into gun violence by 90 percent.

Rosenberg, who was in charge of gun violence research at the CDC in the ’90s before it stopped, calls the language in the new bill very important. He tells Here & Now‘s Robin Young that there are ways to research gun violence without infringing on gun rights.

After the shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February, Rosenberg says lawmakers on both sides seem more supportive of resuming research into gun violence.

“What research offers them are ways to both reduce gun violence and protect gun rights,” he says. “It’s not either-or. We can do both.”

Interview Highlights

On the immediate impact of the 1996 Dickey Amendment

“The CDC was not banned from conducting research, but let me tell you a little bit about the history of the Dickey Amendment. So in 1996, two forces were at odds: One was the force that wanted to support this research and do more of it because they thought this was a way to prevent gun violence. The opposing force was the NRA, and the NRA told everybody, ‘You either can do research, or you can keep your guns. But if you let the research go forward, you will all lose all of your guns.’

“So that was the scene, that’s how it was set in 1996. And Congressman Dickey and I met at an appropriations hearing where we were basically ambushed. But Congressman Dickey and I were really at that time archenemies. He was this born-again, conservative Christian Republican from rural Arkansas, the duck hunting capital of the world. And I was this Jewish kid from the Northeast who worked at CDC, and Jay saw me as a lefty. And we were opposites. We were really against each other.”

On his view that we need to think of guns like cigarettes

“I was talking about children, and I said that tobacco used to be portrayed to children as something sexy. And I said, ‘We changed that, and we let kids know that it was dangerous.’ We need to do the same thing with children and guns.”

On the Dickey Amendment being “a compromise”

“[The NRA] caused a big battle, and they liked that battle, and there was zero tolerance. And the Dickey Amendment was a compromise. It was a compromise between the people who wanted more support for research and the people who wanted to stop the research at the expense of destroying the whole [National Center for Injury Prevention and Control]. That was their goal: Wipe out the Injury Center, and then you could wipe out this research. The Dickey Amendment was a compromise, and it said, ‘We’re not going to wipe out the Injury Center, but we are going to put this language in that says they can’t do lobbying for gun control.’ It did not say at all that they can’t do research, but it was a threat because what it did, it told researchers and bureaucrats and administrators, ‘If you do research in this area, we’re going to write congressional letters to the director of CDC, to the head of HHS or to the president of your university, and we’re going to say you’re disobeying the congressional intent because you are promoting or advocating gun control even though we know you’re not. We can make your life miserable.’ ”

On how the amendment effectively ended the CDC’s gun research

“They made the research more difficult, and they took away the funding. And people who are looking for a place to build a career as a researcher don’t want to go to a place where the funding is unsteady and the obstacles abound. So people fell away and over the years the research done, starting in about 1999, the research that CDC was doing on gun violence prevention fell off by more than 90 percent.

“And I was fired in 1999. The director of CDC at that time thought it was more important to save his own job than to preserve the science. It was a very sad day for CDC because CDC has a reputation of doing honest, rigorous, unbiased scientific research. But the science ended after that.”

On becoming close friends with Jay Dickey

“He became a very, very close friend. He taught me, ‘It’s really important,’ he would say, ‘Mark, that you need to let people know that one of the objectives of this research is to find things that will reduce gun violence without infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.’ He said, ‘You can’t just assume people know that. You’ve got to tell them.’ And at the time when the Dickey Amendment first was written down, it was when people were at odds. There was this big fight between archenemies. I think it’s very different now. I think people on the left and the right are looking for ways that satisfy both: things that will reduce gun violence and protect gun rights. I think whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, whether you advocate gun control or gun rights, you don’t want your children slaughtered in school. You don’t want people killed in a shopping center or a concert. And you don’t want young people and veterans to be killing themselves with guns.”

On what gun research has revealed about suicide

“A gun is lethal if you have someone in the home who is depressed, and you can probably save their life by locking that gun, separating the ammunition from the gun, and putting them both in a safe where the depressed person doesn’t have access to it. And people who commit suicide … do you know how long most people in a big study were contemplating suicide? It was five minutes. So if you have a waiting period that says, ‘No, you can’t rush out the same day and go buy a gun. You have to wait three days or a week,’ you can keep that person alive until that impulse passes.

“And there are other things that do both: They can save lives without infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners. If we find a way to effectively keep people convicted of domestic violence, misdemeanors, or felonies, if we can keep them from obtaining a gun — or just as important, from holding onto a gun — we can prevent gun deaths without infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners because by law those people shouldn’t have them, but they do, and they slip through. But if we can fix the implementation of that law and do research to find out how, we will both be preventing deaths and protecting gun rights.”

On what the language in the spending bill means for gun research

“The new language I think is very, very important because it’s an endorsement by the secretary of HHS of the scientific approach. He comes from the pharmaceutical industry and knows that the way you make progress is through research. So coming from a Republican member of the Trump administration, what he says is really important. The endorsement of the secretary is very important. And the next step will be to appropriate some funds.

“We did such a miraculous job applying science to preventing motor vehicle deaths in this country. We saved half a million lives. Seat belts, airbags, side airbags, head airbags, front-end collision protection, rollover protection, elevated brake lights. We can do the same thing, and we did it all without banning cars. There are more cars on the road now than ever in the history of the Earth. We can do it. We can do it for road safety. We can do it for gun safety, and we can do it without infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners. What this language makes clear is that it’s not either-or like the NRA told us 20 years ago. We can do both. The secretary recognizes we can do both. The only way to find those things is through research, so it’s time to get started. There’s too many lives at stake.”

Editor’s Note: We have reached out to the National Rifle Association for an interview on this topic, and have not heard back.

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