Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee blocked a proposal to designate funding specifically for gun violence research on Wednesday, leaving public health researchers disappointed. The vote against the proposal was 32-20, along party lines.
Overall, the House Appropriations Committee approved the draft fiscal year 2019 funding bill on a vote of 30-22.
The draft bill -- which, in total, includes $177.1 billion in discretionary funding -- consists of funding for programs within the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and other related agencies.
"The Republicans' decision not to include $10 million in appropriations for the CDC to support research to inform gun violence prevention is very disappointing," said Daniel Webster, the Bloomberg Professor of American Health at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
"Gun violence, including suicides, is one of our nation's most pressing concerns for public health and safety. Yet government funding for research that could inform policies and programs to prevent gun violence is miniscule in comparison to the scope of the problem," he said. "Private funding for such research is beginning to increase, but huge public problems demand significant government investment over the long haul."
David Hemenway, professor of health policy and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, called the vote "very sad."
"It's just very sad because we have an enormous gun violence problem in the United States, and the federal government is hardly studying the problem," he said.
In the United States, gun-related deaths unfold daily, with 7,640 people killed by guns this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit group.
"Virtually in any other area, when it's a big public health problem, we want to get our best scientists and our best data and figure out what's going on and what can be done to ameliorate the problem," Hemenway said. "Here, we don't seem to want to do that."
The funding debate explained
Ahead of the vote, Democrats touted that there should be federal government funding to conduct gun violence research, but Republicans argued that such research was never prevented in the first place.
At the heart of the tension is the Dickey Amendment, named after late Republican Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas, passed in 1996 when Congress removed $2.6 million -- the amount the Centers for Disease Control spent on gun research the year prior -- from the CDC's budget.
The legislation stated 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."
Yet more recently, amid a spate of mass shootings over the past decade, Democrats have been calling for a full repeal of the Dickey Amendment to send a message back to the CDC to resume research.
The National Rifle Association, however, has long supported the amendment and argued that the amendment itself didn't prevent gun violence research, only advocacy, and therefore didn't need any changes.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also argued at a congressional hearing after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February that the Dickey Amendment did not prohibit research.
"My understanding is that the rider does not in any way impede our research mission. It is simply about advocacy," he said.
When pressed again on whether he would "actively speak out" and "be proactive on the research initiative" as it relates to guns, Azar responded that "we certainly will."
"We are in the science business and the evidence-generating business," he added. "So I will certainly have our agencies working in this field, as they do across the whole broad spectrum."
The CDC has made no formal indication that it will resume gun violence research.
'A public health crisis that knows no ... boundaries'
Some money for gun violence research comes from foundations or the National Institute of Justice, but researchers say it's not enough.
"It's not like no research is being done," Hemenway said. "It's just that there are so many areas that we can learn so much more about so that we could have much better, targeted policies that make sense."
As Webster put it, in-depth studies of gun policies that require more data are rare -- and need more funding support.
"Studies to estimate the impact of specific gun laws have usually been funded by private foundations or are done by academic researchers who, in essence, donate their time and use data that are readily available," Webster said.
On Wednesday, the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine announced that it was partnering with the American Medical Association in an effort to restart and help fund firearm injury prevention research.
"Gun violence in the United States today is a public health crisis that knows no geographic, political or social boundaries," Dr. Barbara L. McAneny, the American Medical Association's president, said in a news release announcing the partnership.
"As physicians, we see firsthand every day the devastating impact of gun violence, not just on patients, but on families and communities, as well," she said. "We look forward to working with AFFIRM to build the infrastructure for a true epidemiological study of gun violence -- something this country has lacked for too long -- so we can determine its root causes and save lives."