Just 24 hours after a gunman shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared to offer a sign that, just maybe, the country had actually stirred from its current numbness toward mass shootings. "It cannot be denied that something dangerous and unhealthy is happening, Sessions told the Major County Sheriffs' Association in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. "When parents, once again, go to sleep in fear that their kids will not be safe when they leave for their school bus in the morning. We must confront this problem."
This is a surprising, heartening sentiment from the attorney general, especially when viewed alongside the reaction of President Donald Trump, who used Twitter to scold the traumatized survivors of the Parkland shooting for not reporting the gunman to the police:
Sessions' comments provided more than just a counter to Trump's indifference; he also vowed to utilize the Department of Justice, historically not the most reliable archivist of American gun violence, as a tool to "confront this problem." Well, sort of.
"I've directed my office of Legal Policy to work with our partners at Health and Human Services, Education, Homeland Security, and across this administration to study the intersection of mental health and criminality and identify how we can stop people capable of such heinous crimes," Sessions said. "It is just too often the case that the perpetrators have given signals in advance. We had a brief meeting with [these] leaders before this speech and they all agree that every one of these cases we had advanced indications and perhaps we haven't been effective enough in intervening immediately to deal with that."
The irony of Sessions' pledge, of course, is that the federal government has been hamstrung in its effort to address gun violence since 1996—before he even took office as a senator from Alabama. The Dickey Amendment—legislative shorthand for the appropriations rider named for former Representative Jay Dickey—effectively bars funding for research into the root causes of gun violence by public-health institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health. An estimated 33,594 Americans were killed by firearms in 2016, according to CDC mortality data, but the institute can't investigate the sources of those deaths like it would any other public-health crisis.
This doesn't mean the CDC is totally inept: President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2013 directing the institute to "conduct research on the causes and prevention of gun violence, including links between video games, media images, and violence," all to the tune of $10 million. But when the study was eventually published in 2015, it became clear the agency had tied itself into knots to avoid running afoul of the Dickey Amendment: Although the 14-page report, which focused on gun violence in Wilmington, Delaware, detailed the perpetrators and consequences of the city's 127 shootings, it offered little analysis on, well, guns.
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The 2015 study is an exception that proves the rule, a product of the "bizarro world of not-actually-about-gun-violence gun violence studies that are an outgrowth of the Congressional ban," as the Trace put it. But this, in turn, captures the real problem that will forever undermine any federal efforts to understand gun violence: How do you fight a problem that has no clear scope, scale, or definition? Even if the CDC was authorized to jump into federal gun data, no such comprehensive repository exists at the moment—and on the Department of Justice's side, the prospects for serious analysis don't look great.
Will the Florida shooting offer a position reversal for Republicans on the issue of the Dickey Amendment? Perhaps: Dickey renounced his own measure in 2015, and House Judiciary chairman (and Second Amendment advocate) Bob Goodlatte came out in favor of a re-examination of the measure "if it relates to mental health." But given that Sessions' boss once proclaimed that the Obama administration's "eight-year assault" on the Second Amendment ended with the 2016 election, the attorney general's wishful thinking on a gun squad will likely remain just that.