The words were tucked deep into the sprawling text of President Obama’s signature health-care overhaul. Under the headline “Protection of Second Amendment Gun Rights” was a brief provision restricting the ability of doctors to gather data about their patients’ gun use — a largely overlooked but significant challenge to a movement in American medicine to treat firearms as a matter of public health.
The language, pushed by the National Rifle Association in the final weeks of the 2010 debate over health care and discovered only in recent days by some lawmakers and medical groups, is drawing criticism in the wake of this month’s schoolhouse massacre of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn. Some public health advocates, worried that the measure will hinder research and medical care, are calling on the White House to amend the language as it prepares to launch a gun-control initiative in January.
NRA officials say they requested the provision out of concern that insurance companies could use such data to raise premiums on gun owners. The measure’s supporters in the Senate say they did not intend to interfere with the work of doctors or researchers.
But physician groups and researchers see the provision as part of a decades-long strategy by the gun lobby to choke off federal support for studies of firearms violence.
The research restrictions began in the 1990s, when the NRA urged Congress to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s division that studied gun violence. In 1996, Congress sharply limited the agency’s ability to fund that type of research.
More limits came last year in a spending bill setting restrictions on the National Institutes of Health after complaints from gun rights advocates about an NIH-backed study drawing links between alcoholism and gun violence. The provision, added by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), prohibits the NIH from spending money to “advocate or promote gun control” — language that researchers say does not explicitly forbid studies but sends a signal to federal research agencies to steer clear of the topic.
The NRA push has extended into state capitals as well, with Florida lawmakers last year crafting a plan to impose jail time on doctors for inquiring about their patients’ gun ownership. Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed a scaled-back version of the proposal requiring health-care workers to “refrain” from asking patients about their ownership or possession of firearms unless the providers believe “in good faith” that such information would be relevant. A federal judge this year declared the law unconstitutional and blocked its enforcement, but the ruling was appealed by the state and is under review.
Undercutting gun laws
Physician groups and public health advocates say the cumulative effect of these restrictions undercuts the ability of the White House and lawmakers to make the case for new laws, such as an assault-weapons ban, in the face of opponents who argue that there’s no evidence such measures are effective. Advocates for regulating guns lament that reliable statistics are limited in part because physicians and health researchers who could track these patterns are being inhibited.