The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hours before San Bernardino shooting, doctors urged Congress to lift funding ban on gun violence research

(Karen Belier/AFP)

On Wednesday morning, a group of doctors in white coats arrived on Capitol Hill to deliver a petition to Congress. Signed by more than 2,000 physicians around the country, it pleads with lawmakers to lift a restriction that for nearly two decades has essentially blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research on gun violence.

Joined by a handful of Democratic lawmakers, the doctors spoke about the need to view gun violence as a public health epidemic and research ways to solve it – as the country would with any disease causing the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.

Gunmen slay 14 in Calif. in deadliest mass shooting since Sandy Hook

“It is disappointing that we have made little progress over the past 20 years in finding solutions to gun violence," said Nina Agrawal, a New York physician and member of the advocacy group Doctors for America, according to the group's Twitter feed.

“We should all be able to agree that this debate should be informed by objective data and scientific research,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.).

[Why we should think of gun violence as a disease, and study it accordingly]

The group cited a letter released by former Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas, who authored an amendment that restricted federal funding for research into gun violence and its effects on public health. He now regrets that effort.

"Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners," wrote Dickey, who has said he only wanted to ensure that no dollars went to gun control advocacy. "Somehow or someway we should slowly but methodically fund such research until a solution is reached. Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution."

After the speeches and presentations, after the group posed for pictures, Wednesday's event ended. The crowd dispersed. And hours later, another mass shooting began to unfold in San Bernardino, Calif. Multiple shooters, multiple victims – with 14 dead and even more wounded.

Perhaps that's not as much of a coincidence as it might seem, given that the United States has experienced an average of more than one mass shooting for every day of 2015.

"It’s ironic," Price said in an interview Wednesday evening, after the extent of the carnage in California became clearer. "It certain does underscore what we were saying earlier today about the scourge of gun violence, which has become such a feature of our daily lives."

Yet maybe it really wasn't that ironic, he added a moment later, given the all-too-familiar scenes. "What we were saying this morning was just one piece of this, but surely it is the least we can do to take the shackles off our researchers and begin to understand this problem more fully," Price said. "What we’re talking about is really very modest and very basic."

Others raised the issue of the research ban after the mass shooting that killed 10 people at an Oregon community college in October.

[The San Bernardino shooting would be the second mass shooting today and the 355th this year]

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 Post at the time.

Webster wasn't optimistic that change would come anytime soon. But like the doctors who made their plea to lawmakers on Capitol Hill early Wednesday, hours before gunfire rocked another community, he hoped it would come sooner than later.

"It just affects the basic things we care about in public health – the mortality, the life expectancy, morbidity, mental health. It affects all of those things in pretty profound ways," Webster said of gun violence. "If we had a disease that was killing as many people as our guns in our country, we would devote a lot more resources to make sure we had the best data, the best research to know what is most affected."

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