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.