The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Health 202: Gun violence research by the government hasn't been funded in two decades. But that may soon change.


with Paulina Firozi


CNN hosted a town hall discussion with the students and teachers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, parents and lawmakers on gun violence on Feb. 21. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

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Is the latest school shooting enough to convince Congress to start funding gun violence research again? Democrats are hoping it just might be.

In the wake of the Parkland, Fla., tragedy that left 17 dead at a local high school, Republicans are generally resisting passing stricter gun control laws, although some of their resolve is starting to crack as President Trump and GOP lawmakers indicate an openness to strengthening background checks or gun violence restraining-order laws. One of them is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who participated in a politically risky and emotional CNN town hall last night on gun violence in which he supported raising the minimum age for buying a rifle and  stated he is reconsidering his stance on high-capacity magazines.

And student displays — such as the lie-in protests teenagers staged in front of the White House this week – have given gun-safety advocates fresh hope that the violence in Parkland could create new momentum across the country to enact firearms restrictions, my colleagues Dave Weigel and Wesley Lowery report.

There is some action, however, on another front that could have significant impact on the debate. There's a move to reverse a 22-year-old restriction on how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can fund gun-related research — which has essentially created a situation in which policymakers have very little up-to-date data about what causes gun violence or how it can be prevented or reduced.

Under the “Dickey amendment” -- named after former congressman Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican who was a strong NRA ally -- the the CDC can’t use money to “advocate or promote gun control.” While the amendment doesn’t explicitly ban research on gun violence, it has had a chilling ripple effect on federal agencies beyond the CDC and even on privately funded research across the country.

“I think it’s a huge problem,” David Hemenway, director of Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center, told me. “It’s not only CDC but [the National Institutes of Health] has also not done its role in this. And foundations haven’t stepped up because they’re afraid.”

Ironically, Dickey has since reversed course, indicating that his amendment was misguided in light of the wave of subsequent school shootings. Before he died last year, the former lawmaker expressed a desire to turn gun violence research “over to science and take it away from politics.”

Daily Beast's Sam Stein: 

There are some recent indications that key Republicans may feel the same way.

Quizzed last week about his views on gun violence research, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told apanel on Capitol Hill it should be a “priority” for HHS (which houses both CDC and NIH) to research serious mental illness, the causes of violence and, referring to the Florida shooting, the causes of “tragedies like this.”

“We’re in the science business and the evidence-generating business, and so I will have our agency certainly working in this field, as they do across the broad spectrum of disease control and prevention,” Azar said.

And House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said the same day on C-SPAN that it’s not “inappropriate” to take a second look at the Dickey ban.

A group of House Democrats say they see in Azar and Goodlatte’s comments an opportunity to reverse the funding restrictions. Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and David Price (D-N.C.), along with five colleagues, wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) yesterday, urging him to bring up legislation repealing the Dickey amendment and provide “adequate” funding for the CDC to research firearm-related violence.

“There appears to be an opening to finally rescind this unwarranted and detrimental impediment on federally funded research and once again conduct research that could save lives,” the Democrats wrote.

From Maloney: 

They pointed to a research agenda on gun violence developed by the Institutes of Medicine (IOM) in 2013 in response to executive orders by then-President Obama directing federal agencies to improve knowledge of the causes of gun violence, what might help prevent it and how to reduce its toll on public health.

The IOM’s agenda “can be conducted over the next three to five years, including the characteristics of firearm violence, risk and protective factors, and the impact of gun safety technology,” the Democrats wrote.

Former CMS administrator Andy Slavitt is skeptical that funding will be forthcoming, however:

Many other Democrats called for lifting the restrictions:

A Democratic congressional candidate in California: 

When I contacted the CDC, the agency pointed to some limited work federal agencies have done on gun violence research, mostly related to data-gathering and analyses. Last July, NIH published a study on childhood firearm injuries in the United States, and in October 2015 it published a study on overall firearm injuries.

“CDC does not receive direct funding for firearm-related research, but it does do data collection and research that includes firearms as one mechanism of these types of violence issues,” an agency spokeswoman said.

Yet public safety experts note there are a host of questions to which policymakers don’t have any answers supported by scientific data because of the Dickey amendment. Without that ban, they would likely be much further along in understanding the effect of an assault weapons ban on school shootings and what does work in preventing such deadly incidents from occurring.

Here’s a glaring comparison: While deaths from car accidents are closely tracked in the government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, there is no such database for gun deaths. That means there aren’t definitive answers to even basic questions, such as how many households own guns and how many gunshot wounds there are every year.

“We’ve scratched the surface,” Hemenway said. “There should have been 100 times more dollars and 100 times more articles on this.”

MSNBC's Kyle Griffin: 

From the Union of Concerned Scientists:

The Atlantic's Adrienne LaFrance: 


AHH: Drug overdose deaths declined in 14 states in the 12-month period before July 2017, according to new provisional data from CDC reported by Stateline. While drug deaths have been climbing steadily every year, in nearly every state, the new data is a potentially hopeful sign that policies aimed at the opioid epidemic may be working, Christine Vestal writes.

"The reported drop in overdose deaths occurred in Wyoming, Utah, Washington, Alaska, Montana, Mississippi, Kansas, Rhode Island, Oregon, California, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Arizona and Hawaii," Christine writes. "That compares with declines in only three states — Nebraska, Washington and Wyoming — reported for an earlier 12-month period that ended in January 2017....Previously, the CDC only made death data available once a year and it was 12 to 14 months behind. In a fast-moving opioid scourge, epidemiologists say the increased frequency of overdose death reporting is a welcome improvement."

OOF: Calls to suicide hotlines in Puerto Rico have almost tripled in the months since Hurricane Maria. Starting in November and lasting through January, a crisis hotline on the island received 3,050 calls from people who said they had attempted suicide, a 246 percent increase compared with the same period last year, Vox’s Alexia Fernandez Campbell reports. Even more people -- about 9,645 -- called the hotline to report suicidal thoughts, an 83 percent jump from the same time last year.

The suicide rate is the highest it has been in four years, Alexia writes, citing data reported by Puerto Rico’s Department of Health and El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper. “It's hard to tell how much of the spike is directly related to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. But the likely connection is difficult to ignore,” Alexia writes.

Julio Santana Mariño, a psychology professor at Universidad Carlos Albizu in Puerto Rico, told El Nuevo Día the common risk factors for suicide were compounded in the aftermath of the storm. "It's normal for there to be family conflicts, but when you add the stress of more than five months without power, without food, living patterns change ... it makes it harder for people to manage daily life," Santana Mariño said.

OUCH: Robert Weaver, Trump's nominee to lead the Indian Health Service, has withdrawn his name from consideration after a series of Wall Street Journal articles reporting that he'd embellished some of his previous professional experience and left a former employer in financial disarray. “Mr. Weaver is no longer the Administration’s nominee for Director of the Indian Health Service,” an HHS spokeswoman told WSJ yesterday.

The paper reported that while Weaver said he maintained leadership positions at a hospital, former colleagues and supervisors claimed he served as a registration clerk. Weaver, who is a member of the Quapaw tribe, was nominated for the position in October.


--Trump has been prodding Congress to pass a "Right to Try" law making experimental medications available to terminally ill patients, CNBC reports. A lawmaker working closely on the issue said last week the president asked him point blank, "How close are you to getting this done?"

A top priority for a number of conservative groups, Trump called for a Right to Try law in his State of the Union address last month. These laws, which 38 states have enacted, allow patients to take experimental medications outside of clinical trials as long as the therapies have undergone preliminary safety testing. Here's our Health 202 on Right to Try.


--Yesterday New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed his first law in office, restoring $7.5 million for women’s health and family planning that was vetoed by former Republican Gov. Chris Christie. “Today we are saying in a clear voice that New Jersey will once again stand for the right things,” Murphy told a crowd that included Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, per the Associated Press. “New Jersey will once again stand up for women’s health.”

The funding, which Christie slashed eight years ago, went to health providers, including Planned Parenthood, but couldn't be used for abortions. While Christie said he opposed the legislation because it circumvented the regular budget process, Democrats who control the state legislature said it's needed for preventive care, including breast and cervical cancer screenings.

"The eight-year wait to restore the funding was a pointed theme," the AP writes. "Murphy thanked a host of lawmakers for passing the legislation and focused at one point on sponsor Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who introduced the bill each year of Christie’s term."

“If there’s a motto that we can ascribe to you I think it is this: If at first you don’t succeed try, try, try and try, try, try and try and try again,” he said.

--A few more good reads from The Post and beyond:

Florida House Declines Debate On Assault Rifles, Calls Porn A 'Health Risk' (NPR)


Beyond 'Obamacare': New liberal plan on health care overhaul (Associated Press)


It's OK to Use Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine Again, US Panel Says (Associated Press)

Study Seeks to End Antidepressant Debate-The Drugs Do Work (Reuters)


Mexican cartels pushing more heroin after U.S. states relax marijuana laws (USA Today)


Coming Up

  • The Joint House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees hold a hearing on the legislative presentation of the Disabled American Veterans on March 1.

Unpacking America's perceptions about mass shootings and gun control:

Frustration is boiling over on both ends of the political spectrum at the inability to stop mass shootings, but many still can't agree on a path forward. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Trump’s meeting with Florida school shooting survivors, in three minutes:

President Trump on Feb. 21 met at the White House with students who survived the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in last week's shooting, called Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) comments at a CNN town hall "pathetically weak:" 

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., confronted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at a CNN town hall. (Video: Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter died in the high school shooting in Florida said “we, as a country, failed our children:"

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter died in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said on Feb. 21 that “we, as a country, failed our children.” (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)