Last month in this space, I detailed much of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) history of advocating for gun control. This month continues that story by examining how those seeking to use the CDC to promote gun control have repeatedly peddled the false narrative that the government is prohibited from engaging in any firearms-related research.
In August, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky sat down for an interview with CNN for what was framed by the purported news network as a major announcement. Walensky told CNN that, after supposedly more than two decades on the sidelines because of an NRA-backed measure to limit the use of CDC funding, the agency was getting back into the gun-violence-research business. Despite waning support for the public health agency in the wake of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Walensky said it was time for the CDC to put the “pedal to the metal” on this political controversy. The CDC director said of firearms, “I swore to the president and to this country that I would protect your health. This is clearly one of those moments, one of those issues that is harming America’s health.”
Aside from the general problem with treating firearms as if they were germs transmitting a communicable disease—as opposed to treating their misuse as a criminal justice problem—the CDC’s supposedly groundbreaking announcement might leave some observers of gun politics with a sense of confusion or deja vu for a couple of reasons.
First, Congress never banned research into the misuse of firearms. In 1996, Congress enacted budget language (the Dickey Amendment) that made clear “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.” As the CDC and its grant recipients had been engaged in overt gun-control advocacy for over a decade prior to the amendment, the language was interpreted by some as a complete ban on gun-related research at the CDC. The public health agency and its allies’ subsequent complaints about the Dickey Amendment’s moderate language only served to bolster NRA’s contention that CDC’s work was hopelessly biased.
Further, the Dickey Amendment’s prohibition on the misuse of federal government resources covered just that: federal government resources. Anti-gun financiers and state governments have been all too willing to fund the type of gun-control advocacy from which Congress sought to spare the federal taxpayer.
For instance, in 2016, billionaire media mogul and failed presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg gifted $300 million to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to address “domestic public health issues” including “gun violence.”
In 2015, California established the anti-gun Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California, Davis, with $5 million in public money. Governor Gavin Newsom’s (D) 2019 budget dumped another $3.85 million tax dollars into the gun-control project. The Garden State hosts the taxpayer-bankrolled New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University, which Governor Phil Murphy’s (D) FY2022 budget funded to the tune of $2 million. Lawmakers in Hawaii have sought to establish a similar anti-gun research center in the Aloha State.
Second, over the past decade there have been several pronouncements from the federal government that it would be engaged in firearms-related research.
In 2013, President Barack Obama made “end[ing] the freeze on gun violence research” part of his “Now Is the Time” plan to address firearms. While the president’s actions were incorrectly characterized as ending a non-existent “freeze” on research, the text of the plan acknowledged:
[F]or years, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other scientific agencies have been barred by Congress from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control,” and some members of Congress have claimed this prohibition also bans the CDC from conducting any research on the causes of gun violence. However, research on gun violence is not advocacy.
In a presidential memorandum issued January 13 of that year, Obama directed the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to, “through the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other scientific agencies… conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it.”
In 2018, there was another round of statements declaring the non-existent “freeze” in federally funded firearms research over. The report language for the 2018 omnibus budget bill contained completely unnecessary language noting, “While appropriations language prohibits the CDC and other agencies from using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.” This was followed up by another round of pronouncements in 2019 when Congress approved $25 million in firearms-related research funding.
In the spring of 2020, while President Donald Trump was still in office, the CDC website had this to say about firearms:
CDC’s approach to preventing firearm injuries focuses on three elements: providing data to inform action; conducting research and applying science to identify effective solutions; and promoting collaboration across multiple sectors to address the problem.
Lest one worry that the CDC exhibited any timidity in funding such research before Walensky’s CNN announcement, rest assured that the agency is shoveling the appropriated loot out the door. In 2020, the CDC issued more than $8 million in funding to 18 firearms-related research grants.
Much of the funded research is of dubious value, and some of the grants appear aimed at testing the boundaries of the Dickey Amendment, with research seemingly designed to identify firearms as a problem and conducted by researchers with a history of gun-control advocacy.
What are gun owners to make of Walensky’s August announcement? The CDC director’s behavior, along with statements from the Biden administration’s allies in the major gun-control organizations, give the impression that they won’t be satisfied until the Dickey Amendment is eliminated—in fact or in practice.
On the frivolous end, take, for example, a nearly $650,000 award to Brown University’s Megan Ranney to “evaluate the effectiveness of a bystander intervention in changing firearm injury prevention norms, attitudes, intentions, and behaviors among a sample of 50 4-H Shooting Sports Club communities.” At a time of record-low youth firearm accidents and record-high government debt, a researcher was granted more than half-a-million dollars to test her pet project out on an organization already dedicated to teaching youngsters about the safe and responsible use of firearms.
A $600,000 award to the University of South Alabama’s Krista Mehari should raise eyebrows among those concerned with the fidelity of the Dickey Amendment language. The proposal notes that the funded researchers “will identify methods of gun access or acquisition, storage, and carrying; motivations for gun access, ownership, storage practices, use, and carrying; attitudes about ownership, storage safety, use, and carrying; acceptability of gun-focused prevention strategies; and ideas for novel prevention strategies.” A cynic could be forgiven for thinking “gun-focused prevention strategies” might just be a clever euphemism for gun control.
As for the CDC funding those with a history of gun-control advocacy, consider Baylor College of Medicine’s Bindi Naik-Mathuria. The recipient of a nearly $350,000 grant, Naik-Mathuria argued in a 2019 Houston Chronicle opinion piece that “Lawmakers must work as hard as doctors to prevent gun violence.” That same year, Naik-Mathuria signed onto a statement from the American Pediatric Surgical Association that advocated for the criminalization of private firearm transfers and for “restrictions on civilian access” to commonly owned semi-automatic firearms and standard-capacity magazines.
Say what you want about the federal government, but it excels at the duplication of effort. They are working with our money after all. In addition to the CDC dolling out federal plunder, the National Institutes of Health have joined in on the grift. The NIH issued $8.5 million in funding in 2020, and another $14.3 million in 2021, to “build upon the existing NIH violence research portfolio and address gaps and emerging opportunities to understand and prevent firearm violence injury and mortality.”
So, from the plain text of the 1996 Dickey Amendment, the statements of presidential administrations spanning both parties, the actions of Congress and the CDC’s own behavior, it is clear that the CDC and duplicative federal public health agencies were never prohibited from researching violence perpetrated with firearms in an unbiased manner, and that the federal government has, in fact, spent millions on firearm-related research over the last few years.
Therefore, what are gun owners to make of Walensky’s August announcement? The director’s statements, and attempt to generate fanfare, suggest the CDC intends to do something qualitatively different than what the Dickey Amendment and the Obama and Trump administrations acknowledged the agency has the authority to carry out.
The CDC director’s behavior, along with statements from the Biden administration’s allies in the major gun-control organizations, give the impression that they won’t be satisfied until the Dickey Amendment is eliminated—in fact or in practice. Under such a regime, the CDC would once again be able to funnel taxpayer dollars to gun-control organization-connected researchers, hobnob with the gun-control lobby, and take to professional journals and the lay press to advance an anti-gun agenda.
Going forward, NRA will continue to keep a close eye on the CDC to ensure that it remains in compliance with efforts by Congress to protect gun owners and the American taxpayer. Moreover, NRA stands ready to alert our members to any potential instances of noncompliance, and we will work to rectify any such breaches of federal law.