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Science & Environment

CDC Now Has Authority To Research Gun Violence. What's Next?

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For almost 20 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been avoiding gun violence research. But new language in the spending bill signed by President Trump on Friday could change that. Dr. Mark Rosenberg once oversaw gun violence research at the CDC.

MARK ROSENBERG: Science had brought the death rate in car crashes way, way down. And they didn't have to ban cars. And we said, let's find ways to save lives from gun deaths. And we can do that without banning guns.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Rosenberg is now president emeritus of the Task Force for Global Health. He says that work had to stop when the Dickey Amendment was passed.

Tell us what the Dickey Amendment did.

ROSENBERG: The Dickey Amendment arose out of a fierce battle between two archenemies - gun control, and the other was gun rights. And the NRA had told their members that you can't have both. And the Dickey Amendment was a compromise. The Dickey Amendment said CDC can do the research. But they can't use any of these funds to promote or advocate gun control. What that meant was CDC couldn't lobby for legislation that would impose gun control. Now, CDC was not in the business of lobbying. But this amendment was a shot across the bow. It was an obstacle to people doing research.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And actually, the late Jay Dickey, who passed last year - the Republican lawmaker who wrote the amendment - had a change of heart. He supported the research at the end of his life. And he opposed his own legislation.

ROSENBERG: Jay Dickey and I started out as mortal enemies. And we were so different, so opposite from each other. But over time, we developed a friendship. Jay Dickey taught me that it's so important to let people know that one of the objectives of the research is to find ways of reducing gun violence that won't infringe upon the rights of law-abiding gun owners. And he learned from me that science could find ways to reduce gun violence without taking guns away through a public health approach. So he changed his mind. And together, we wrote an op-ed in 2013 that said science can find a way forward. And we need to get the research restarted.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which brings us to today - there's a new line in the spending bill which gives the CDC the authority to do this research - apparently, a change. What can happen now, in your view?

ROSENBERG: Well, this language is really, really important, first, because it recognizes that science has something to contribute to solving this horrendous problem. We can develop things for legislators. We can give them the evidence and what is safe and what is effective, just like we do for medications. The other reason that this language is important - the Dickey Amendment remains intact in these appropriations. And though the Dickey Amendment started out as an obstacle, it's now a bridge to bring people together. It provides assurance to those people who might be really committed to gun rights that none of the money that you appropriate for research will go to gun control promotion or gun control lobbying or advocacy. It's only going to go to scientific, objective, unbiased research.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think this is a different moment? I mean, there's been people, yourself included, advocating for this for a long time. Why now?

ROSENBERG: I think there's a lot of pressure on people. And I don't think that NRA members or Republicans want to see their children killed in school. I think they want safety for their homes and their communities. And they're under a tremendous amount of pressure right now to vote for or against some of these gun legislative proposals. We owe it to them to give them information about what works. We don't know for even the simple basic measures of gun registration and licensing of gun owners - we don't know that that would work - or preventing the sale of semi-automatic rifles. Will that prevent mass shootings or school shootings? We owe it to them to get the research done so we can give them the data.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Rosenberg is the president emeritus of the Task Force for Global Health. Thank you so much.

ROSENBERG: Thanks, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF 65DAYSOFSTATIC'S "UNMAKE THE WILD LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.