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Untie the hands of researchers on gun violence

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not allowed to conduct research on gun violence.Getty Images/file 2014

Coming in the midst of a divisive national debate over gun control, Jeb Bush’s recent comments linking mental illness to mass shootings landed with a thud. After the shooting in Colorado at a Planned Parenthood facility, the GOP candidate for president called for a renewed focus on mental health systems in order to identify people with “severe mental health issues” before they spiral out of control.

Although he has a point — and he recently talked movingly with the Huffington Post’s Scott Conroy about his daughter’s struggle with addiction as a teen — Bush and other gun rights defenders do everyone a disservice by putting a partisan spin on mental health research, holding it up as an alternative to stricter gun laws.

In comments to WHOTV in Iowa, Bush focused his concern on deeply disturbed individuals who live in isolation, their delusions stoked by social media. “What are the common denominators of these very public mass murders where people then commit suicide?” Bush said. “And I think the one common denominator that’s pretty clear is, there’s a huge mental health challenge in our country.” So far, so good — but then Bush went on to defend the status quo: “The impulse to do something whenever we have these tragedies inevitably impacts the 99.99 percent of people that use firearms appropriately.”

It’s not an either-or proposition. More restrictive gun laws, which prevent quick and easy access to deadly weapons, are needed to help stanch the bleeding caused by the nation’s horrifying spate of mass shootings. But a deeper understanding of the causes of gun violence could help on the prevention side too. Congress had one potential solution delivered to its door, just before gunfire rang out in California. Doctors wearing white coats handed lawmakers a petition signed by more than 2,000 physicians. Their plea was simple: Lift a decades-old funding restriction that blocks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research on gun violence.


The budget amendment, the work of former congressman Jay Dickey, an Arizona Republican, ties the hands of the country’s most specialized and skilled researchers — just when they’re needed most. Dickey himself has since repudiated his own measure. “Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners,” he wrote in a letter. “Somehow or some way we should slowly but methodically fund such research until a solution is reached. Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution.”


But Dickey doesn’t serve in this divided, dysfunctional Congress. In 2013, President Obama actually took executive action to order the CDC to resume research, but lawmakers refused to fund it. So Dickey’s gag order still stands. Congressional lawmakers “control the purse strings. They could change this today, if they wanted to,” Daniel Webster, who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, told The Washington Post.

Certainly, mental illness is not always a primary factor. Tashfeen Malik, the woman who helped carry out the San Bernardino attack last week, pledged her fealty to ISIS in a Facebook post, and the FBI says she and her husband, Syed Farook, had been radicalized “for some time.” But in other cases, mental instability seems to loom large: Vester Lee Flanagan II, who shot and killed a Roanoke, Va., television reporter in August during a live broadcast, had a work history that was littered with troubled behavior. John Houser, who killed two and wounded nine in July at a movie theater in Lafayette, La., had been ordered to a psychiatric hospital in 2008.

Congress should stake out the moral high ground on gun violence, strike down the Dickey amendment, and fund research by the CDC into the complex, and little-understood, causes of one of the nation’s most virulent epidemics.