On March 12, 2018, President Trump retreated from the position he took in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, calling for more comprehensive gun control measures.[i] Trump’s retreat was unsurprising considering Congress’s current trend of loosening, rather than tightening, gun control measures. In 2004, Congress allowed the Assault Weapons Ban to expire,[ii] and has never moved to renew it. Recently, the House passed a bill, backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), allowing concealed weapons to be carried in every state, even when certain licensing requirements are not met.[iii]
This legislation does not exist in a vacuum, and the shortage of meaningful federal gun control measures appears to run counter to the present high rate of gun violence. A staggering 35,141 people die in the United States each year due to gun violence,[iv] and since the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting there has been more than 1,607 mass shootings.[v] Regardless of the conclusion one draws between loose federal regulation and the rate of gun violence, the data demonstrates that Congress has failed to address gun violence in a material way. Moreover, polarized opinions on what is driving gun violence further burdens Congress’s ability to enact legislation.[vi] One way to clear the path for crucial reform is by repealing the Dickey Amendment.
The Dickey Amendment was included in an appropriations bill in 1996. It states, in relevant part, that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [(CDC)] may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”[vii] While the amendment does not explicitly ban gun violence research, the CDC conducts very little substantive research into the issue of gun violence.[viii] The CDC’s caution is partially due to a fear of violating the law.[ix] Subsequent to the passage of the amendment, Congress re-appropriated the funds that had previously been allocated to gun violence research.[x] The stripping of this funding suggests that CDC research on the issue of gun violence is prohibited. Even after President Obama’s clarification that the amendment does not prohibit this research,[xi] “no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out.”[xii] Accordingly, it is clear that the CDC will not conduct research on gun violence while the Dickey Amendment is firmly in place.
The absence of CDC research on gun violence is significant because this research could be especially useful in analyzing the effectiveness of state gun laws.[xiii] In recent years, some states have strengthened gun regulations while others have repealed existing regulations altogether. For example, New York has begun to more strictly regulate ammunition purchases,[xiv] while Missouri has repealed licensing and background check requirements for handgun owners.[xv] With so much variation among states, there is plenty of data within the United States that is ripe for analysis, and which may enhance our understanding of gun violence.
Determining the most effective state-employed approach would pave the way for future federal legislation. Thus, by funding this CDC research, Congress and the CDC will enable a means for understanding why gun violence is occurring at this high rate. With such knowledge, lawmakers will hopefully be able to reach a consensus on how to best prevent future incidents of gun violence. While the NRA lobbied for the Dickey Amendment, and would likely oppose its repeal, many Americans support reasonable gun reform.[xvi] Repealing the Dickey Amendment would be a strong first step toward enacting such reform.
[i] Michael D. Shear & Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Conceding to N.R.A., Trump Abandons Brief Gun Control Promise, N.Y. Times (Mar. 12, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/12/us/politics/trump-gun-control-national-rifle-association.html.
[ii] Joel Roberts, Assault Weapon Ban Expires, CBS News (Sept. 13, 2004 9:42 AM), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/assault-weapon-ban-expires/.
[iii] H.R. 38, 115th Cong. (2017); see also Shear, supra note i.
[iv] Key Gun Violence Statistics, Brady Campaignto Prevent GunViolence (last visited Mar. 24, 2018), https://www.bradycampaign.org/key-gun-violence-statistics.
[v] Lexington, The Banality of Mass Murder: America’s Latest School Slaughter, The Economist (Feb. 15, 2018), https://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2018/02/banality-mass-murder.
[vi] For example, some Republican lawmakers attribute gun violence to mental illness. See Benjamin Mueller, Limiting Access to Guns for Mentally Ill Is Complicated, N.Y. Times (Feb. 15, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/15/us/gun-access-mentally-ill.html (After the Parkland school shooting in Florida, Governor Rick Scott asked: “How do we make sure that individuals with mental illness do not touch a gun?”).
[vii] Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act, Pub. L. No. 104-208, 110 Stat. 3009 (1996), https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-104publ208/pdf/PLAW-104publ208.pdf.
[viii] Kate Masters, Why Did the CDC Stop Researching Gun Violence?, The Atlantic (Apr. 5, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/cdc-gun-violence/476814/.
[ix] Andrew Jay McClurg, In Search of the Golden Mean in the Gun Debate, 58 How. L.J. 779, 787 (2015).
[x] Christine Jamieson, Gun Violence Research: History of the Federal Funding Freeze, Am. Psychol. Ass’n (Feb. 2013), http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2013/02/gun-violence.aspx.
[xi] Allen Rostron, A New State Ice Age for Gun Policy, 10 Harv. L. & Pol’y Rev. 327, 358-59 (2016).
[xii] McClurg, supra note ix, at 787.
[xiv] N.Y. PenalLaw § 400.03 (LexisNexis 2014).
[xv] Niraj Chokshi, Study: Repealing Missouri’s Background Check Law Associated with a Murder Spike, Wash. Post (Feb. 18, 2014), https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2014/02/18/study-repealing-missouris-background-check-law-associated-with-a-murder-spike/?utm_term=.a3470046dee9.
[xvi] Baxter Oliphant & John Gramlich, Supporters of Stricter Gun Laws Are Less Likely to Contact Elected Officials (Oct. 12, 2017), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/10/12/supporters-of-stricter-gun-laws-are-less-likely-to-contact-elected-officials/.