About a dozen attorneys general, led by Maura Healey, are asking Congress to allow the nation’s top public health agency to study gun deaths, just as it studies deaths caused by auto accidents.
In a letter to Congress, the attorneys general are urging lawmakers to repeal a 1996 amendment that stipulates that funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may not be used “to advocate or promote gun control.”
President Obama, Senator Edward J. Markey, and other Democrats have pushed for years to lift the restriction, saying it has effectively squelched almost all CDC research into firearm deaths and injuries.
Healey’s focus on the issue comes as she is scheduled to attend a White House summit on gun violence Tuesday with other state and local officials, including Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
“Gun violence is a public health issue,” Healey plans to say at the White House meeting, according to a copy of her prepared remarks. “We should let our public health experts study it!”
The National Rifle Association pushed the amendment after a 1993 study by Arthur Kellerman, based on research funded by the CDC, found that keeping a gun in the home was strongly associated with an increased risk of homicide, not self-protection.
In addition to banning the CDC from using its funding “to advocate or promote gun control,” the measure diverted the $2.6 million that the agency had spent on gun-related research in the previous year to brain-injury research.
“Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear,” Kellerman wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2013. “But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out.”
The National Rifle Association said Monday that the amendment doesn’t ban CDC research into guns; it just ensures those studies are not politically motivated.
“There is no prohibition on funding for legitimate research,” said Lars Dalseide, an NRA spokesman. “The Dickey amendment prohibits taxpayer dollars being used to promote gun control. It was enacted because the CDC was using taxpayer dollars to promote gun control instead of funding legitimate research.”
David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, said the amendment had such a chilling effect that the CDC is not only afraid to conduct research on guns, it won’t even utter the word “guns” at conferences.
“If CDC ever does anything like that, it knows it’s going to be hauled before Congress and beaten up,” he said. “The amendment is just a symbol of the problem.”
Because the CDC has lost almost all of its funding for gun research since the amendment passed in 1996, Hemenway added, “we really know much less than we should about such a large societal problem.”
Although a letter from 13 attorneys general may not tip the debate, Hemenway said he was encouraged that the issue has been gaining attention.
In December, 10 organizations representing 2,000 doctors nationwide backed efforts to repeal the amendment and allow the CDC to examine gun deaths as a public health issue.
“If enough people are standing up and saying this is not to be tolerated — we’re not in the Dark Ages and we believe in science and we believe in good data — that’s very useful,” Hemenway said.
Healey’s letter points out that more than 33,000 people die from guns every year in the United States. Among the areas that need to be studied, she said, are the effectiveness of gun storage methods, intervention by health care professionals, and the psychology of gun violence.
“There is no time to waste,” she says in the letter, which was signed by attorneys general from 12 other states. “As the chief civil or criminal law enforcement officers of our respective states, we are charged with keeping our communities safe, and we need better evidence-based strategies to combat the epidemic of gun violence that is ravaging our families and communities.”
Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has sponsored legislation to repeal the amendment and provide the CDC with $60 million for gun research over six years. But his bill has not passed the Republican-controlled House or Senate.
“For us, it’s a matter of lending additional support as law enforcement officials to that effort,” said Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, a Healey spokeswoman. “It’s clear the NRA has a stranglehold on Congress and it’s going to take efforts like this one to. . . marshal support to change it.”Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.