A dealer displays firearms for sale at a gun show in Kansas City, Missouri December 22, 2012. (Dave Kaup/Reuters)

Mark Rosenberg and his colleagues were forced to stop their work at the point of a gun — or at least at the insistence of National Rifle Association.

In 1996, Rosenberg was director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC). It was then that Congress, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, stopped federally funded gun-related research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which includes NCIPC.

Now, President Obama wants the government to resume gun violence research, as he outlined Wednesday in his plan to reduce deaths and injuries from firearms.

“We don’t benefit from ignorance,” he said. “We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.”

Yet, for nearly two decades researchers — federal employees and grantees — have not conducted the kind of scientific inquiry into gun violence that is common in other areas of public health. Congressional action is to blame.

How the NRA exerts influence over Congress

“It kind of stopped us dead in our tracks,” said Rosenberg, who is president and chief executive of the Task Force for Global Health.

This was not a theoretical exercise for Rosenberg, a physician, and the other federal scientists. It was not about any partisan or ideological debate in Washington. It only was scientific research designed to save lives, just as, he said, research on motor vehicles led to better cars, better roads, better drivers and fewer deaths.

“We started collecting information on firearms deaths,” he recalled. “We had something called the National Firearm Surveillance System. We were developing that and it was really working well.”

Perhaps too well.

“Pro-gun members of Congress mounted an all-out effort to eliminate” the injury prevention and control center, writes Arthur L. Kellermann and Frederick P. Rivara in a December online article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The headline, “Silencing the Science on Gun Research,” is a good depiction of what happened when Congress forced federal employees to follow the narrow agenda of a special interest lobby, an agenda that was contrary to the mission of the agency.

“It has virtually stopped good public health science on this question for the last 10 to 15 years,” Kellermann, a physician and Rand Corporation policy analyst, said by telephone.

Congress did not specifically prohibit gun research, but that was the effect. Congress directed that the injury prevention office not use any of its funding “to advocate or promote gun control.”

That’s not what Rosenberg said he and his colleagues were doing. But that’s the way the NRA and its allies on Capitol Hill interpreted what the CDC was doing.

There was “continued harassment . . . attacks” on agency scientists who presented data at a meeting where someone else pushed firearm restrictions, Rosenberg said. “The NRA would claim that we were in violation of the appropriations language and we were promoting gun control, by even being at the same meeting where it was mentioned.”

“So, people became very wary of this.”

Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, said the CDC “used taxpayer money to pursue an agenda of gun control.” NRA officials oppose Obama’s call for CDC research based on their view that it previously was used for political purposes.

The research stopped, even though it had not been specifically prohibited.

“Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear,” Kellermann and Rivara wrote. “But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out. . . . Even today, 17 years after this legislative action, the CDC’s website lacks specific links to information about preventing firearm-related violence.”

Now that can change.

Obama’s plan says he is “directing the Centers for Disease Control and scientific agencies to conduct research into the causes and prevention of gun violence.” White House lawyers looked at the law and concluded it didn’t prohibit public health research on gun violence. That is not advocacy.

The plan calls on the CDC to “start immediately” by evaluating current strategies for preventing gun violence and “identifying the most pressing research questions” that can lead to the greatest reduction in gun violence.

“This effectively lifts the ban on gun research,” Rivara, a University of Washington professor of pediatrics, said in a telephone interview. “However there also is the question of funding.”

The question of funding for the CDC in general is one that worries Kellermann as a result of Obama’s directive.

Obama presented “a very positive message,” Kellermann said. But it could have “tragic consequences,” he warned, if congressional opponents try to get back at Obama by cutting the agency’s budget.

“My fear is the CDC could become a political football,” he added. “A political pawn.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.