Last week, just a few hours before America was forced to bear witness to yet another mass shooting, a group of citizens called on Washington to do something about gun violence. In a letter addressed to Congress, nine medical associations representing more than 2,000 American doctors called for the overturning of the Dickey Amendment, the 1996 appropriations rider, named for former Representative Jay Dickey, that effectively bans the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health from researching the causes of gun violence.
The doctors' plea to Congress follows a similar call for repeal by House Democrats, many of whom railed against the hypocrisy of dedicating "$240 million a year on traffic safety research, more than $233 million a year on food safety, and $331 million a year on the effects of tobacco, but almost nothing on firearms that kill 33,000 Americans annually," as Representative Jackie Speier wrote in November.
"Gun violence is a public health problem that kills 90 Americans a day," said Dr. Alice Chen, the executive director of Doctors for America, in a statement last week. "Physicians believe it's time to lift this effective ban and fund the research needed to save lives. We urge Congress to put patients over politics to help find solutions to our nation's gun violence crisis."
What do we really know about the state of guns in America in 2015?
Just a few hours after the letter was penned, American citizen Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik slaughtered 14 people with high-powered rifles at a holiday party at a social services center in San Bernardino, California, before engaging in a shoot-out with police. While federal law enforcement is investigating the incident as an act of international terror—given reports that Malik had "pledged allegiance to ISIS" prior to the massacre—the shooting immediately led to renewed calls for lawmakers to take up the task of gun control.
If we're ever going to seriously address gun violence in the United States, we could start by repealing the Dickey Amendment. How could politicians design and engineer legislation to address a problem over several different political and bureaucratic regimes without first understanding what they're trying to fix in the first place?
Consider this: Is the gun epidemic truly an epidemic? How do we define that? Crowdsourced trackers that define mass shootings as "incidents in which at least four people are killed or injured by gunshots" suggest that there have been 355 mass shootings this year alone, but is that definition of "mass shooting" really accurate? In a New York Times op-ed, Mark Follman argues that there have only been four "mass shootings" this year (and 73 since 1982) because "almost all of the gun crimes behind the much larger statistic are less lethal and bear little relevance to the type of public mass murder we have just witnessed again." Or consider this: Is the nation truly as awash in guns as we think? Despite the fact that gun sales spike after mass shootings, gun ownership has actually been on the decline since 1972, according to General Social Survey data. So what do we really know about the state of guns in America in 2015?
This isn't to argue that gun deaths aren't a problem. There have been at least 12,208 gun deaths in America this year alone, and gun violence has killed more people in the last 50 years than any American war. But because there's no "official" definition for mass shootings and gun ownership, politicians and activists simply don't have the same research-based understanding of the problem that informs how legislation is crafted, or how funds are appropriated and distributed in pursuit of a solution. Even the "mental illness" dodge traditionally offered up by conservatives in the aftermath of a shooting disaster runs into methodological problems under the post-Dickey regime; how can we begin to identify warning signs of "mentally unstable" potential mass shooters if the CDC and NIH can't even analyze data from the past 20 years? Remember when then-House Speaker John Boehner commented after the June shooting at a black church in Charleston that "guns don't kill people ... people do"? Well, how can we solve the "people" problem without public health researchers who can identify patterns of violence?
Of course, overturning the Dickey Amendment may be a tremendous challenge. In 2012, former Representative Dickey effectively reversed his position in the Washington Post, fingering the National Rifle Association's profit-driven anxiety over CDC research into the underlying causes of gun violence:
From 1986 to 1996, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sponsored high-quality, peer-reviewed research into the underlying causes of gun violence. People who kept guns in their homes did not—despite their hopes—gain protection, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Instead, residents in homes with a gun faced a 2.7-fold greater risk of homicide and a 4.8-fold greater risk of suicide. The National Rifle Association moved to suppress the dissemination of these results and to block funding of future government research into the causes of firearm injuries.
One of us served as the NRA's point person in Congress and submitted an amendment to an appropriations bill that removed $2.6 million from the CDC's budget, the amount the agency's injury center had spent on firearms-related research the previous year. This amendment, together with a stipulation that "None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control," sent a chilling message.
Dickey's reversal is, well, meaningless. Republican lawmakers continue to thwart efforts to work around the Dickey Amendment, thanks in large part to the NRA's $37.6 million in donations over the past 15-plus years.
In its first vote on gun policy following the massacre in Charleston, Congress simply opted to preserve the Dickey research ban in a party-line vote. The NRA's stranglehold on Congress is so absolute that, despite the desperate handwringing over refugees and terrorism over the last several weeks, Senate Republicans rejected a bill that would have prevented suspected terrorists from legally buying guns. The date of that rejection? The day after the San Bernardino massacre.
"If you need proof that Congress is a hostage to the gun lobby, look no further than today's vote blocking a bill to prevent known or suspected terrorists from buying guns and explosives," seethed Senator Dianne Feinstein. "Congress has been paralyzed by the gun lobby for years, while more and more Americans are killed in mass shootings. The carnage won't stop until Congress finds the courage to stand up to the gun lobby and protect the nation."
The same day that bullets cut down social services workers in San Bernardino and an alliance of doctors raised their voices in Washington, Jay Dickey wrote another open letter, this one to California Representative Mike Thompson, demanding that Congress re-think his infamous legislation. "Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners, in the same fashion that the highway industry continued its research without eliminating the automobile ... it is my position that somehow or someway we should slowly but methodically fund such research until a solution is reached," Dickey wrote. "Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution."
But doing nothing, sadly, has become the status quo for American gun control. "In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate," observed the Telegraph's Dan Hodges in the wake of the Charleston massacre. "Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over."
When a political party marked by a hostility to facts can wage a war on empiricism in the service of its gun-peddling patrons, doing nothing looks to be the only option left.