Fed­eral law stops CDC stud­ies of men­tal health in shoot­ings

Trump urges Se­nate to pass ex­panded gun check bill


One of the big un­knowns in the gun de­bate is the ac­tual role men­tal health plays in fu­el­ing mass shoot­ings. And an­a­lysts say the rea­son it’s still un­known is be­cause a pro­vi­sion of fed­eral law has pre­vented the fed­eral gov­ern­ment from fund­ing that re­search for more than two decades.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion this month sug­gested some cracks in the ban. Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Alex Azar said he sees room for the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion to fund some re­search — but not ac­tual lob­by­ing ef­forts.

CDC cash could spur the coun­try’s ma­jor re­search univer­si­ties, which have been re­luc­tant to spend their own money on the is­sue.

“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,” Mr. Azar said at a hear­ing on Capi­tol Hill.

It re­mains to be seen, how­ever, whether Con­gress will push the CDC to go fur­ther.

Democrats have vowed to push to change the law and com­pletely re­move the study ban. Key Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, though, doubted they would take that step be­cause they have al­ready writ­ten the 2018 spend­ing bills to con­tinue the pro­hi­bi­tion and it doesn’t make sense to jeop­ar­dize the spend­ing bill over that is­sue.

“I imag­ine it’ll be re­viewed next year but seems to me a pretty small piece of a tril­lion-dol­lar-plus spend­ing bill,” said Rep. Tom Cole, Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can and chair­man of the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee that over­sees CDC fund­ing.

The ban dates back to 1996. It pro­hibits fed­eral fund­ing “from be­ing used to ad­vo­cate or pro­mote gun con­trol.” Orig­i­nally pushed by Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas, it is now rou­tinely in­cluded in an­nual spend­ing bills.

Mr. Dickey said later that his orig­i­nal in­ten­tion was not to com­pletely quash fed­er­ally funded re­search into the causes of gun vi­o­lence.

But gun con­trol ac­tivists say that was ex­actly what hap­pened. They say the amend­ment sent a clear mes­sage that fed­eral re­searchers should steer clear of the is­sue.

“I think of it this way: If you’re a young re­searcher, young epi­demi­ol­o­gist, and you’re think­ing of which area you want to spe­cial­ize in, and you can choose ei­ther an area that gets no fed­eral fund­ing or an area that gets tens of mil­lions of dol­lars of fed­eral fund­ing an­nu­ally, which one might you choose?” said Avery Gar­diner, co-pres­i­dent of the Brady Cam­paign to Pre­vent Gun Vi­o­lence.

Pri­vate univer­si­ties and foun­da­tions do fund gun stud­ies on their own, but gov­ern­ment money is such a vi­tal source of re­search fund­ing in gen­eral that if the gov­ern­ment de­cides not to do it, the broader re­search suf­fers, said Robert Spitzer, a pro­fes­sor at State Univer­sity of New York at Cort­land who has writ­ten mul­ti­ple books about gun pol­icy.

He said the CDC prob­a­bly could have spent money on the stud­ies, but it too was cowed by Con­gress.

Say­ing he wants a “strong” re­sponse to the Florida high school mas­sacre, Pres­i­dent Trump urged law­mak­ers Wed­nes­day to move for­ward with a Se­nate bill to ex­pand back­ground checks on gun pur­chases, leg­is­la­tion that was de­feated in 2013 with op­po­si­tion from the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion.

In a White House meet­ing that was tele­vised live, the pres­i­dent told a bi­par­ti­san group of law­mak­ers from the House and Se­nate that Wash­ing­ton must take bold ac­tion af­ter the shoot­ing in Park­land, Florida, killed 17 peo­ple.

“Don’t be shy,” Mr. Trump said. “We have to do some­thing about it. We can’t wait and play games and noth­ing gets done. It can be ended and it will be ended.”

The pres­i­dent also sparked a fu­ri­ous re­sponse on so­cial me­dia from con­ser­va­tives and gun own­ers by say­ing that he would go so far as ig­nor­ing due-process rights to con­fis­cate guns from peo­ple deemed dan­ger­ous.

“I like tak­ing the guns early, like in this crazy man’s case that just took place in Florida ... to go to court would have taken a long time,” Mr. Trump said. “Take the guns first, go through due process sec­ond.”

Among those crit­i­ciz­ing the pres­i­dent’s com­ment on gun con­fis­ca­tion was Sen. Ben Sasse, Ne­braska Repub­li­can.

“Strong lead­ers don’t au­to­mat­i­cally agree with the last thing that was said to them,” Mr. Sasse said. “We have the Sec­ond Amend­ment and due process of law for a rea­son. We’re not ditch­ing any Con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tions sim­ply be­cause the last per­son the pres­i­dent talked to to­day doesn’t like them.”

The NRA dis­missed Mr. Trump’s sen­ti­ment as po­lit­i­cal theater.

“While to­day’s meet­ing made for great TV, the gun con­trol pro­pos­als dis­cussed would make for bad pol­icy

“They want to avoid any po­lit­i­cal heat that might en­dan­ger their other pro­grams,” he said in an email.

Mr. Azar’s an­nounce­ment that he be­lieves the cur­rent lan­guage al­lows some re­search changes all that, said Sen. Roy Blunt, Mis­souri Repub­li­can and chair­man of the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee that over­sees CDC money.

“He knows they can do this re­search if they want to, so I don’t think there’s any fur­ther need to clar­ify that,” Mr. Blunt said.

Democrats, though, don’t want to leave the mat­ter to in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“We have a lot of work to do in or­der to undo [the] harm that the gun lobby did,” said Sen. Christo­pher Mur­phy, Con­necti­cut Demo­crat and a lead­ing gun con­trol voice in Con­gress.

Sen. Ed­ward J. Markey, Mas­sachusetts Demo­crat, sent a let­ter to Mr. Azar ask­ing him to clar­ify the sit­u­a­tion and in that would not keep our chil­dren safe,” NRA spokes­woman Jen­nifer Baker said in a state­ment. “In­stead of pun­ish­ing law-abid­ing gun own­ers for the acts of a de­ranged lu­natic our lead­ers should pass mean­ing­ful re­forms that would ac­tu­ally pre­vent fu­ture tragedies.”

The White House was ex­pected to come out with its pro­pos­als for en­hanc­ing school safety, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent’s pre­vi­ously stated sup­port for a bill spon­sored by Repub­li­can Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Demo­cratic Sen. Chris Mur­phy of Con­necti­cut that would strengthen the FBI’s data­base for check­ing on an in­di­vid­ual’s crim­i­nal records.

But the big­gest sur­prise of the hour­long meet­ing came when Mr. Trump ex­pressed sup­port for us­ing a dif­fer­ent bill, spon­sored by Repub­li­can Sen. Pat Toomey of Penn­syl­va­nia and Demo­cratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Vir­ginia, as the foun­da­tion for any con­gres­sional ac­tion on guns.

The Manchin-Toomey leg­is­la­tion, op­posed by the NRA, would ex­pand back­ground checks to all gun sales, in­clud­ing gun shows and in­ter­net sales.

Pres­i­dent Obama pushed for the bill af­ter the Sandy Hook El­e­men­tary School shoot­ing in New­town, Con­necti­cut, that killed 20 first-graders and six adults in De­cem­ber 2012. The mea­sure had 54 votes in the Se­nate but failed to at­tain the re­quired thresh­old of 60 votes.

Turn­ing to Mr. Cornyn, the pres­i­dent asked of his more lim­ited leg­is­la­tion, “Can you merge it into Joe and Pat’s bill? Be­cause I like it much bet­ter. I’d rather have a com­pre­hen­sive bill. I think they work to­gether.”

Mr. Cornyn replied that “the most im­por­tant thing is to act,” but he ques­tioned whether the Manchin-Toomey mea­sure could get enough sup­port.

The pres­i­dent also asked Mr. Toomey whether his bill would raise the le­gal age limit for pur­chas­ing cer­tain long guns from 18 to 21, an­other pro­posal op­posed by the NRA. Mr. Toomey replied, “We par­tic­u­lar to ask if he sup­ported a con­gres­sional re­peal of the money ban al­to­gether.

“As a con­se­quence of the rider, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, health­care prac­ti­tion­ers, re­searchers, and oth­ers have lacked com­pre­hen­sive, sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion about the causes and char­ac­ter­is­tics of gun vi­o­lence or the best strate­gies to pre­vent it,” Mr. Markey wrote.

“The tragedy in Park­land, Florida, once again re­minds us that it is long past time we change that,” he said.

The Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion, a lead­ing pro­po­nent of the orig­i­nal lan­guage, has said it is not op­posed to fed­eral gun re­search per se but that some of the CDC’s ini­tia­tives in the 1990s drifted to­ward ad­vo­cacy on the is­sue.

The orig­i­nal ban was spurred in part by a 1993 study pub­lished in the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Medicine that as­so­ci­ated keep­ing a gun in the home with an in­creased risk of homi­cide by a fam­ily mem­ber or don’t ad­dress it.”

“You know why, be­cause you’re afraid of the NRA,” Mr. Trump re­torted.

Mr. Toomey said he has a “reser­va­tion” about rais­ing the age limit be­cause he be­lieves it would pun­ish law-abid­ing gun own­ers un­nec­es­sar­ily.

“The vast ma­jor­ity of 18, 19, and 20year olds in Penn­syl­va­nia who have a ri­fle or a shot­gun, they’re not a threat to any­one,” Mr. Toomey told the pres­i­dent. “They’re law-abid­ing cit­i­zens. They have that be­cause they want to use it for hunt­ing or tar­get shoot­ing, and to deny them their Sec­ond Amend­ment right is not go­ing to make any­one safer.”

Mr. Manchin told the pres­i­dent that their leg­is­la­tion will pass if he sup­ports it.

Mr. Trump said of the failed vote in 2013 un­der Mr. Obama, “And you didn’t have a lot of pres­i­den­tial backup?”

“That was our prob­lem,” Mr. Manchin replied.

Mr. Toomey added, “Pres­i­dent Obama did sup­port it, but ...”

“But that was your prob­lem,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Toomey agreed, say­ing, “there was a worry that he wanted to go fur­ther, frankly, and — and that was a con­cern for some of our guys.”

Mr. Obama was vo­cal in push­ing for the Manchin-Toomey bill af­ter the Sandy Hook mas­sacre. On the day the Se­nate failed to pass it, he held a tele­vised news con­fer­ence in the White House Rose Gar­den with Sandy Hook fam­i­lies, call­ing it “a pretty shame­ful day for Wash­ing­ton.”

At the time, Mr. Obama blamed the NRA and its al­lies for stok­ing fears that he wanted to cre­ate a na­tional registry of gun own­ers.

While Mr. Trump seemed un­en­thused by Cal­i­for­nia Demo­cratic Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein’s pitch for re­new­ing the fed­eral ban on as­sault weapons, Democrats seemed de­lighted over­all with Mr. Trump’s pro­nounce­ments on gun mea­sures. close ac­quain­tance.

Dickey, who died last year, ac­knowl­edged that the lan­guage did morph into an ef­fec­tive ban on fed­eral re­search into the is­sue, but he said that was not what he was try­ing to do.

“I was on to other things and wor­ry­ing about my con­stituents,” he told NPR in 2015. “And I didn’t fol­low through and say, we … still need to do re­search. I didn’t do that.”

Mark Rosen­berg, the di­rec­tor of CDC’s cen­ter for in­jury pre­ven­tion in 1996, thinks the lan­guage is help­ful be­cause it en­sures any re­search isn’t tainted by anti-gun bias.

“To­day, I be­lieve the Dickey amend­ment should be pre­served, to as­sure those on the gun-rights side of the de­bate that none of the funds they send to CDC will be used to lobby for gun con­trol leg­is­la­tion and that these funds will be used only to sup­port sci­en­tific re­search,” Mr. Rosen­berg wrote this month in Politico.

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