Researchers are banned from looking at gun violence. One physician wants to change that.
WASHINGTON — Days after the Orlando gay nightclub shooting, a fed-up emergency room doctor from New Orleans flew to Washington, hoping the assault-rifle massacre that claimed 49 victims might spur movement on gun legislation.
In particular, Dr. Jay Kaplan, like many of his colleagues, wanted Congress to lift a 20-year-old amendment that effectively bans most federally sponsored academic research into gun violence.
It seemed like low-hanging fruit to Kaplan, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. Surely, he thought, Congress could see value in at least gathering and analyzing information about gun deaths and injuries, right?
But if anyone was educated in his trip to the capital, it was Kaplan. He received a harsh lesson in the current immobility of Congress on anything related to guns. His anger boiled over during a strategy meeting with Democratic lawmakers and aides. Kaplan noted that his own niece was wounded in a 1998 school shooting in Oregon. She still has a bullet lodged in her pelvis.
“If one of our congressmen had a family member who was shot, then things might change,” Kaplan recalled saying.
An aide spoke up. Actually, the young man noted, “Our own Gabby Giffords got shot and we couldn’t do anything.”
Gabrielle Giffords, a former Arizona congresswoman, was shot in the head while meeting with constituents in a Safeway parking lot in 2011 and survived. Since then, the pattern of mass shootings has included Aurora, Colo., Newtown, Conn., Charleston, S.C., and San Bernardino, Calif.
In the wake of the June 12 Orlando massacre, the country’s worst mass shooting, physicians and their influential lobbying groups, sensing public opinion on their side, have mobilized around reversing the 1996 research restriction — writing letters to congressional leaders and vowing to flood Capitol Hill with teams of lobbyists. The campaign has been joined by the American Medical Association and the Massachusetts Medical Society.
“In medicine we see a problem and say let’s study it and let’s act,’’ Kaplan said in an interview. “But we have a very politicized Congress. I want to say to these people, ‘What are you afraid of?’”
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The National Rifle Association, the powerful gun-rights lobby based in Fairfax, Va., pushed through the research restriction in 1996 after a federally funded study linked guns in the home to an increased risk of homicide.
The amendment mandated that none of the money made available to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used for activities that “advocate or promote gun control.”
While the amendment did not explicitly forbid research into gun violence, it had the same chilling effect by stripping away $2.6 million from the CDC’s firearm injury research program.
“It was a shot across the bow warning people that if you do research in this area, [the NRA is] going to come after you and hassle you and make your life miserable,” said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, then head of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. As a result, he said, “science has been stopped dead in its track for 20 years.”
Rosenberg said political pressures keep the CDC from using its existing budget for gun research. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, declined via a spokesperson to be interviewed.
Gun violence now kills roughly 30,000 Americans each year, about as many people as car accidents. But the federal government, by investing billions of dollars in research into traffic fatalities, has been able to save hundreds of thousands of lives with policies on seat belts, child car seats, and motorcycle helmets. Similar safety efforts could be pursued for guns, advocates say.
Even Jay Dickey, the former Republican congressman from Arkansas who sponsored the 1996 amendment restricting research, has teamed up with Rosenberg, his former nemesis, to call for greater federal spending on the study of gun violence.
“I regret that we didn’t keep the money in the bill because of what’s happened since then,” said Dickey, a lifetime NRA member. “I think reasonable people are going to cross the line and say we have to do something. That’s what happened to me.”
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Kaplan gathered in a Chicago hotel ballroom with hundreds of other doctors some 48 hours after the attack in Orlando. The annual meeting of the American Medical Association buzzed about the mass slaughter. The AMA leadership called for an emergency resolution declaring gun violence a “public health crisis” and seeking an end to the research ban.
Most of the doctors leapt to their feet and applauded the near unanimous vote, according to those in attendance.
“We should apply the scientific method to understanding gun violence so we can propose evidence-based solutions that perhaps society would be willing to accept,” said Dr. Steven Stack, AMA president and an emergency physician from Lexington, Ky.
Asked why the association had not pushed to reverse the legislation earlier, Stack said the AMA “continuously revises its gun violence policies over time as circumstances change.”
“We were in the midst of our meeting when the horrible events in Orlando unfolded,” Stack said. “All of these events inform policy making.”
The NRA criticized the medical community’s push to lift the restrictions as falling “victim to the emotional political agenda of the gun control crowd.” NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide said the organization does not object to “legitimate” research, only to taxpayer-funded studies done to “promote an antigun agenda.”
Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has pushed since 2013 to reverse the restriction, called the slew of medical lobbying groups weighing in a potential “game changer.” Markey and two dozen other Democrats on Wednesday urged Senate leaders to reinstate money to the CDC to study gun violence.
But a spokesman for Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, tempered any expectation of movement on the issue, saying Markey’s bill to remove the restrictions has not been scheduled for a hearing.
After the Newtown school shooting, which killed 20 children and six adults in 2012, President Obama issued an executive order commanding the CDC to get back to the business of studying the causes of gun violence and requested $10 million to be dedicated for such research. But Congress never approved the funding. And research never resumed.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan referred questions on the issue to the Energy & Commerce Committee, where a House version of Markey’s gun research bill is languishing.
The political stalemate leaves Kaplan uncertain about the timeline for change.
During his trip to Washington, he said, he offered to speak at any platform the House Democrats convened. And he vowed to reach out to GOP leaders who control Congress, but he is not hopeful about receiving a warm welcome.
“I can’t just sit in Paul Ryan’s office and demand to speak with him and his people,” Kaplan said. “But the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest.”