WASHINGTON — After the high school shootings that killed 17 people in Parkland, Fla., gun control advocates have seized the momentum with attacks on the National Rifle Association and captured public attention with Saturday’s nationwide protests.
But the powerful gun lobbying group has a strong, little-known defense against challenges to its absolutist stand on the Second Amendment: federal limits on both research into guns and the distribution of data about the industry.
Laws backed by the NRA and other pro-gun groups prevent the public from seeing which firearms dealers are selling the most guns used in crimes, information the federal government collects but won’t share, even with premier research universities. The NRA also pushed through rules that had a chilling effect on federal studies focused on how guns affect public health, denying policy makers a road map for better gun laws.
Congress took a small step to loosen restrictions against gun-violence research sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its budget plan approved last week, but significant appropriations hurdles will remain before the research can restart.
Detractors say the NRA is using a tactic similar to the tobacco industry’s suppression of evidence about the health dangers of smoking. The difference: Big tobacco ultimately failed in its efforts while the pro-gun groups have successfully beaten back most legislation they oppose.
The NRA disputes the notion that it’s cutting off scientific study.
“Anyone who thinks there’s a lack of researchers studying firearms has been ignoring the headlines,” said Lars Dalseide, an NRA spokesman. “The fact is a number of studies are released every year. While most are tainted with preconceived outcomes in search of supporting data, there is plenty of funding in that arena.”
Gun control supporters were able to use the public outrage over the Parkland shootings to notch a rare victory when the Florida Legislature passed measures that include an increase in the minimum age to own a gun from 18 to 21.
Most gun deaths in the country aren’t the result of mass shootings. In cities such as St. Louis, Baltimore, and Detroit, where gun violence is rampant, residents have no access to the bigger picture that might show why so many weapons have flowed into their cities.
The difficulty in gaining access to gun data, or in conducting federally funded research, is the result of decades of work by the NRA. The powerful lobbying group has ensured that legislation — initially attached as riders to larger bills — became law.
One federal law, approved in 1996 and named for Jay Dickey, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas, specified that the Centers for Disease Control and Protection could not conduct research intended to bolster gun control advocacy.
Congress, in its budget bill that was signed by President Trump on Friday, included a provision clarifying that the rule was not meant to choke off all gun research. But the Dickey amendment was never the only reason gun-violence research was curtailed, and therefore advocates are uncertain whether changing it will mean new money will flow into research.
The 1996 provision came amid a massive fight the NRA picked over the role of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which is part of the CDC.
“They wanted to abolish the whole injury center,” said Mark Rosenberg, who was the director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control when the Dickey Amendment passed as part of a spending bill. Congress compromised; rather than defunding the entire center, lawmakers settled on a narrowly written amendment that barred the CDC from conducting research that advocated for gun control.
“This was really a warning shot. A shot across the bow,” Rosenberg said. Congress sent another message when it reduced the center’s budget by $2.5 million, the exact amount that CDC had used to fund a gun-related study that the NRA disliked.
The final warning came in 1999: Rosenberg was fired from his job.
“People got the message that this is a very hard area to work in. If you’re a researcher, you’re not going to get funded. If you’re in the federal bureaucracy, you’re going to get hassled,” Rosenberg said.
Dickey, before he died in 2017, forged a friendship with Rosenberg and told NPR in 2015 that he regretted pushing the amendment that has been credited with choking research.
The 2003 Tiahrt Amendment, part of a Justice Department appropriations bill, created a barrier to releasing data, one that has been almost insurmountable to researchers. It stops the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from sharing information about gun stores that have records of selling firearms that wind up in crime scenes.
When a police department finds a gun used in a crime, it typically asks the ATF to trace the weapon back to the original sale, enabling law enforcement to figure out who initially bought the gun and who sold it. When it was available to the public, such aggregated data provided a powerful way to bring public pressure on gun dealers with terrible records for selling crime guns.
“The inner cities face the violence more than everybody else,” said Boston Police Commissioner William Evans. “We see the young kids getting killed. Most of these gun shops are not in the inner cities. They are out in the suburbs. They are interested in making money.”
In Massachusetts, law enforcement agencies had roughly 2,000 crime guns traced in 2016, according to the most recent data from ATF. Most of those weapons were purchased out of state, with New Hampshire, Maine, and Florida accounting for the largest supply of such guns to the Bay State.
“We’re trying to figure out how we can stem the flow,” said Evans, who added that many of the crime guns found in Boston originated from states with lax purchasing laws.
But private researchers and the public don’t have more granular data showing which counties or specifically which gun stores are providing the weapons. Police departments are limited, too, and can only obtain trace data about crime guns found on their streets, though they can share this data with other police departments.
“It’s critical information,” said Lindsay Nichols, who is the federal policy director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Before the Tiahrt restrictions applied, researchers used the federal data to gain a sophisticated understanding of how guns went from legitimate seller to criminal. “We started to see some really important patterns,” said Daniel Webster, a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Most important, Webster and others found a huge disparity in gun dealers: Roughly 1 percent of all gun stores in the country accounted for more than half of the crime guns the ATF traced in the late 1990s, according to a Hopkins report. And in some cities, Webster found that just a few stores were responsible for selling weapons recovered in 70 percent to 90 percent of all gun crimes.
Todd Tiahrt, who as a Republican from Kansas was the initial sponsor of the restriction in a 2003 amendment, said in an interview that the main point of his legislation was to prevent the public release of data on gun owners.
“The idea was to protect the privacy of American citizens,” said Tiahrt, who left Congress in 2011 and now runs a consulting firm.
The NRA has additional concerns. The group fears that high-volume stores would become unfairly painted as bad actors due to the simple fact that any establishment selling more guns is likely to have more guns end up at crimes scenes. Or, it points out, stores located near major freeways might also be used more frequently by criminals going out of state to purchase a weapon.
The gun rights advocates say the ATF has plenty of authority to shut down stores that repeatedly sell to criminals. But experts counter that the bureau has limited resources.
“Congress makes sure that the ATF budget is insufficient to do its job,” said Webster, the Hopkins professor. “It makes sure that the way it’s written laws and regulations, [it is] incredibly difficult to shut down a gun shop.”
Regardless of whether federal agents are willing to act, Webster said communities should be able to publicly protest stores. He gave the example of the Valley Gun Shop, an infamous dealer in Baltimore County that was shut down after a decade of supplying guns to criminals.
“If I’m living in the shadows of Valley Gun, and I know the rates that those guns end up at crime scenes, I’m boycotting that store. I’m picketing it,” Webster said. “Localities need to know this information. Community residents should know it.”