When President Barack Obama announced his latest round of executive actions on Tuesday he said more research could help reduce gun violence. So why didn't he order the country's most prominent health and safety agency to start doing it?

The answer is because Obama's been there and tried that before. He attempted executive orders in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012, including a direction to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume research into gun violence.

But it hasn't, and it doesn't look like it will start up again until Congress agrees to fund a program, and that appears to be a long shot.

The so-called ban on gun violence research at the CDC, America's premier national public health institute, remains firmly in place.

The reason is because, in the early 1990s, the CDC was accused by the National Rifle Association and other critics of promoting an anti-gun agenda, rather than conducting neutral research.

As a result, the Republican-controlled Congress stripped $2.7 million out of its budget in 1996, the amount that had been dedicated to gun violence research, and threatened further cuts.

A Republican congressman, Jay Dickey, also added an amendment that no CDC funds could be used to advocate or promote gun control. That language has been included in every annual appropriations bill since.

Obama's requests to Congress to earmark $10 million for gun violence research in CDC budgets have been rejected for the last three years. 

Gun research a 'hot potato'

Mark Rosenberg was in charge of the CDC's National Center for Injury Control and Prevention in 1996 and fought to maintain the gun violence funding. It ultimately cost him his job when a new head of the CDC took over.

With no money dedicated for either in-house research or external grants, and people afraid of losing their jobs and more cuts, the research dried up.

"It's just I think that they feel it's too hot a potato for them to handle," Rosenberg said in an interview. "And if they can work in other priority areas of public health and global health that don't come with as much political baggage, then they'd prefer to do that." 

As the U.S. grapples with more than 30,000 gun-related deaths each year, and one mass shooting after another, Rosenberg said research could help answer some of the outstanding questions on gun violence.

"This is where we are really suffering in this country. The stopping of research by CDC stopped us from systematically finding out what works."


After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, President Barack Obama tried to get the CDC to resume funding for gun violence research but Congress won't pay for it. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Would banning semi-automatic guns reduce mass shootings? Does licensing gun owners cut down on unintentional deaths? Would more people carrying concealed firearms lead to an increase or decrease in homicides?

"The basic questions that we know are so important, we don't know the answers," Rosenberg says.

Jeffrey Swanson, a professor and researcher at Duke University in North Carolina, says that when the CDC left the field of gun-related research, many other scholars did, too.

It had a "chilling effect," he said, adding that anything to do with guns is "politically radioactive" and that some academics saw engaging in that field of research as a "career killer."

Some research has gone on, Swanson says, but given the scale of the problem there should be much more, and the CDC should be playing a leading role.

"We need to focus on this in a way that is commensurate with the size and complexity of the problem."

CDC accused of anti-gun bias

The Dickey amendment shouldn't necessarily discourage the CDC from getting back into the field, as it only prevents research that promotes gun control. "There is an awful lot that can be done that doesn't meet that definition," Swanson says.

But Timothy Wheeler, the California physician who founded the group Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, said in an interview that the CDC has "an institutional bias against gun ownership."

He testified before a congressional committee in 1996 about what he called "obvious, well-documented instances of blatant political advocacy for gun control" at the CDC.

Wheeler cites public comments by CDC staff, including Rosenberg, and to a study that Rosenberg co-authored, as examples of the CDC's anti-gun agenda. One of the study's recommendations to prevent firearm injuries was to prohibit gun ownership, he said, adding there is no reason to believe anything has changed at the CDC since the '90s.

Obama Ebola

The Atlanta-based CDC has an annual budget of about $8 billion and a world-renowned repution in the field of public health. But its crtics have said it has an institutional anti-gun bias. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

"Congress should continue its policy of not allowing tax money to be spent on gun control advocacy at the CDC," said Wheeler.

However, Jay Dickey, the former Congressman who helped put the policy in place, has had a change of heart since he left Capitol Hill.

He and Rosenberg, once on opposite sides of the debate, later became friends and now write op-eds together calling on Congress "to let science thrive" and to resume funding for the CDC's gun research.

They argue that it's possible to do research that both protects the rights of gun owners and helps prevent gun violence. "We can do both, we absolutely can. But you need to do the research and try it out and see what works," said Rosenberg.

Science helped make cars, roads and drivers safer, reducing highway fatalities, said Rosenberg, and guns are no different. 

"We can stop screaming and start saving lives and protecting gun rights."