Global Politics

Congressman who throttled gun violence studies says he made a mistake

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Handguns are seen for sale in a display case at Metro Shooting Supplies in Bridgeton, Missouri, November 13, 2014.

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More than 33,000 Americans died from gunshot wounds in 2013, and more than 88,000 were injured. Despite those figures, many lawmakers in Washington are staying away from the issue of gun control.

Back in June, we reported that House Republicans quietly renewed language that effectively bans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from even studying guns as a health and safety issue.

According to Takeaway Washington Correspondent Todd Zwillich, the CDC ban on studying gun violence goes back to a government spending bill from 1997 that contains these 26 words: “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.”

“That happened back then because the [National Rifle Association] leaned on lawmakers, saying CDC researchers were advocating for gun control when their results suggested, for instance, that having a gun in the home was more dangerous than not having one,” says Zwillich. “And it’s remained so ever since.”

Flash forward almost 20 years, and the congressman that penned those original 26 words says that the decision to include such language was a mistake.

“I regret the fact that we didn't start the research,” says Jay Dickie, who served five terms as a Republican congressman from Arkansas. “The problem was that the research that we were looking at was designed with the agenda of gun control — not with the agenda of gun violence. What I regret is we didn't go forward and say, ‘We do need research, but we need research with integrity.’”

President Barack Obama alluded to the ban in his frustrated remarks after the Umpqua Community College shooting last week.

“We spend over a trillion dollars and pass countless laws and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so," the president said. "And yet we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?”

Now, with a big budget deal in the works between President Obama and congressional leaders, Congress has a chance to change, or even undo, this ban.

“As a spending deal, this is the place where Congress, if it wanted to, could modify or easily strike those 26 words and block it out,” says Zwillich.

The question is, will they?

Republican Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday seemed to offer little support for such a move.

“In ‘09 and ‘10, we had Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and a Democratic president, and this clearly was not a priority for them,” he says. “The president can rail all he wants. Let’s talk about what we can do to make sure people with serious mental illness don’t have access to weapons.”

Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas argues that the focus should not be on CDC research. Instead, he’s planning to introduce a package of mental health reforms aimed at improving treatment programs and making it harder for people with potential mental illnesses to acquire guns.

“That really is the common ground on this,” says Sen. Cornyn. “But my impression is that the president isn’t really interested in any common ground. He’s just interested in having the issue because he knows it gets people very inflamed, and it does. But there is a better way to handle this if he would choose to work with us constructively rather than just lecturing us about Second Amendment rights.”

But it’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, who will be directly negotiating with President Obama and congressional lawmakers on a budget deal — a deal that may or may not include those key 26 words. And it appears that it’s an issue that he doesn’t want to touch.

“I don’t have any observations to make about what may ultimately emerge from the talks,” McConnell said.

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said he does want this language out, but wouldn’t say whether Democrats will push the issue.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to let the American people know that we’re not kowtowing to the gun lobbies in this country,” he said. “We should get rid of the [CDC ban], but that’s one of the things we’ll have to deal with.”  

At least one senior Republican aide said even though this language is indeed about research, it’s viewed by many outside of Capitol Hill as gun control — something that complicates the issue for lawmakers.

“The White House wants to put things in this budget deal that will get votes, not lose votes,” says Zwillich. “Gun control, even if it’s in the form of a CDC study, is going to lose votes.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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