Brennan Linsley / AP

Doctors urge Congress to fund gun violence research

Physicians’ groups say lack of funding for research on gun violence and prevention is a critical public health problem

On Wednesday morning, hours before 14 people were shot dead in San Bernardino, California, by a heavily armed couple, several prominent physicians’ groups presented a petition to Congress urging lawmakers to end what it called the “effective ban” on gun violence research by government agencies.

More than 2,000 doctors from Doctors for America, the American Medical Women’s Association, the National Physicians and other groups signed the petition, which asked Congress to include funding for research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) about gun violence and how to prevent it in annual appropriations.

“There’s nothing else that kills or injures so many people that we know so little about,” Dr. Alice Chen, a physician at UCLA Medical Center and the executive director of Doctors for America, a Washington-based advocacy group, told Al Jazeera. “We know that research [on guns] needs to be done for us to have the answers we need to prevent all these terrible tragedies that are happening every single day.”

So far in 2015 there have been 353 shootings in the U.S. involving four or more deaths or injuries, according to the website

In 1996, Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., spearheaded an effort to cut $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, the same amount that was appropriated the previous year to conduct research on gun-related deaths in the United States. Congress wrote into its appropriations bill for 1997 that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Critics of this measure, which has become known as the Dickey amendment and has been included in appropriations bills since 1997, say that it has, in effect, cut off the CDC and other public health agencies from receiving funding for gun violence research. 

“Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear,” wrote Dr. Arthur Kellerman from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and Dr. Frederick Rivara with the University of Washington, two of the epidemiologists who conducted gun violence research that may have inspired the amendment, in a 2013 op-ed. “But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out.”

The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment about reasons for the lack of gun violence research. It has determined that, among the 10 leading causes of injury deaths in the U.S. in 2013, suicide by firearms and homicide shooting deaths are the fourth and fifth most common causes, respectively.

“It is possible for us to conduct firearm-related research within the context of our efforts to address youth violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, and suicide,” CDC spokeswoman Courtney Lenard wrote in an email to The Washington Post in January, “but our resources are very limited.”

After the December 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, which killed 26 people, including 20 first-graders, President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2013 calling on the CDC to research the causes of gun violence as well as its prevention.

However, Chen says that the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention still does not receive enough funding from Congress, despite the president’s order.

In June former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that the CDC is supposed to protect public health by looking at diseases and not guns. “I’m sorry, but a gun is not a disease,” he said. “Guns don’t kill people — people do. And when people use weapons in a horrible way, we should condemn the actions of the individual and not blame the action on some weapon.”

But Chen says that gun deaths are a critical problem for the health care system.

“A pool is not a disease, either, but we [the government] research on what keeps kids from drowning,” she said. “To say this is not the business of the CDC, that does not make sense.”

Dickey, who retired from Congress in 2000, sent a letter on Tuesday to Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who chairs the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, calling for more gun violence research. “Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners, in the same fashion that the highway industry continued its research without eliminating the automobile,” he wrote. “It is my position that somehow or some way we should slowly but methodically fund such research until a solution is reached. Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution.”

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