Doctors hope new U.S. spending bill will end NRA's 'corrosive effect' on gun research

A new U.S. spending bill paves the way for the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence for the first time in two decades.

American Public Health Association director lauds amendment allowing CDC to study firearms violence

Assault rifles hang on the wall for sale at a store in Virginia. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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The executive director of the American Public Health Association is welcoming a new amendment that grants the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence."

The massive spending bill signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday added new language to a 1996 amendment passed by Congress, after lobbying by the National Rifle Association, which barred the CDC from using appropriated funds to "advocate or promote gun control." 

The so-called Dickey Amendment, named after former Arkansas Rep. Jay Dickey, has had chilling effect on CDC research around firearms for the last two decades. 

Dr. Georges Benjamin hopes that chill will now be lifted. He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the benefits of studying gun violence as a public health issue. 

Here's a part of that conversation:

Now that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has been told it's allowed to study the causes of gun violence, what are the chances that it will start to study [this]?

They did not give them any specific funds to do it, but we're cautiously optimistic that the administration will start to do the research that's necessary to help save lives.

American Public Health Association Executive Director Georges Benjamin is 'cautiously optimistic' about new language in the so-called Dickey Amendment that gives researchers permission to study the public health effects of gun violence. (Getty Images/Alex Wong)

Can you give a little bit of the history as to how the CDC came to cease its research into gun violence?

Over 20 years ago, when we first founded the [National Center for Injury Prevention and Control] at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they were doing some violence work. They started looking at the numbers. They recognized that, you know, gun violence was a significant public health problem.

Like any other public health issue, [they] began to try to study it.

They put out dollars for grants — and that some of the studies that came back with really good results angered the gun lobby.

The gun lobby got this language put on the budget which said that they couldn't lobby and they couldn't advocate for gun control.

But in addition to that, they took the money away, they pushed out the centre director, and then there were some folks in the community that actually went after the researchers — you know threatening them at their jobs, at home, et cetera.

This was clearly a message that we don't want you to research.

So people, particularly at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stopped doing it.

This came about because of something that's called the Dickey Amendment, isn't it? Jay Dickey was an Arkansas Republican and former lawmaker who had this amendment. Was this what Mr. Dickey had intended?

He has said that that was not his intention.

I take him at his word, but I've got to tell you that that was certainly the gun lobby's intention.

They put it on there and they behaved in a way to make sure that the research stopped. It had a very, very corrosive effect.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the press about the $1.3 trillion US spending bill passed by Congress early Friday, which adds language to the Dickey Amendment. (Getty Images/Mark Wilson)

What has been lost in this decades-long gap in research?

We don't really know a lot that we ought to know.

We don't know anything about whether open-carry increases your risk or closed-carry of a weapon increases your risk.

We don't know a lot about why people feel that having a gun in a home is protected to them.

We don't know whether or not having a firearm in your home makes you more protective if someone comes into your home versus not.

We do know that having a gun in your home certainly puts you at a higher risk overall.

So there's a lot of very very specific questions that we certainly don't know.

This is a watershed moment.- Dr. Georges Benjamin

The NRA has insisted as a fact that gun violence isn't caused by guns — that's not why the violence exists. So if they're so confident of that, why do you think that they didn't want any research done on it?

Because they know it's not true. Yes. Certainly people kill people, but they kill them with firearms.

Cars don't get up each morning deciding that they want to go kill people, but people die in automobile crashes each and every day. You know, we saw resistance from the automobile industry many years ago to making their automobiles safer, but we prevailed. And now, the automobile industry is running around marketing how safe their automobiles are.

You just described how the NRA and gun lobbyists intimidated and shut down the research and went to such lengths. What's to stop them from doing it again? They seem to be even bigger and more powerful than they were 20 years ago.

We expect them to. But, you know, things are changing here.

I just saw a picture on TV of all the marches that are occurring all over the world. We certainly have numerous marches led by youth all over the United States.

This attitude is changing and I anticipate that the National Rifle Association has finally found a group of people that they cannot intimidate.

You think this is a watershed moment?

This is a watershed moment. There's no question about it. 

Written by Katie Geleff and Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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