Tucked away in the NRA-ILA archives is an Atlanta Constitution article from April 20, 1975. Titled, “Life-Style Disease: Atlanta’s CDC Plans to Examine Ways People Make Themselves Sick,” the item doesn’t mention firearms, but details how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention planned to expand its role beyond controlling actual communicable diseases like polio and smallpox and into all manner of personal conduct.
The Atlanta Constitution item assured readers, "The CDC itself by no means has plans to go out and force people to change life-styles. It will only act as a catalyst and clearing house for other interested agencies and organizations to help develop the concept that people would only have to change their ‘life-styles’ a little to be healthier."
However, within a decade, the CDC was attempting to take a central role in Americans’ lives. This included attempts to dictate one of their most personal decisions—how to protect themselves and their families.
In 1983, the CDC established its Violence Epidemiology Branch, which set forth to apply a “public-health approach” to what are more appropriately understood as criminal justice matters. Under this new rubric, firearms would be treated akin to germs transmitting a communicable disease.
In the December 1984 issue of Science, the CDC expressed its interest in targeting gun ownership. A CDC staffer who insisted on anonymity lamented, “Because of the Reagan administration’s anti-gun-control stance, the CDC has tiptoed around the issue of gun control.” Making clear the agency’s desire to attack firearms, the source added, “The violence branch is in a fledgling state. If it steps too hard on the gun issue, it would be squashed in a heartbeat.”
Sniffing out the CDC’s motives from the start, NRA Information and Member Services characterized the article’s contents by explaining, “After losing numerous legislative fights in the gun control battle, handgun control groups now are trying an end-run political tactic in a new area—public health policy.”
The CDC’s false timidity didn’t last long. Amidst a period of elevated violent crime, the federal government held the Surgeon General’s Workshop on Violence and Public Health in late October 1985. In 1986, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a report on the workshop that contained the policy recommendations of the various “work groups” at the conference. CDC Violence Epidemiology Branch chief Mark L. Rosenberg served as the “Advisory Committee Member” on the “Assault and Homicide: Prevention” work group.
Rosenberg’s group made the following unconstitutional recommendation that: "there be a complete and universal federal ban on the manufacture, importation, sale, and possession of handguns (except for authorized police and military personnel) and that the manufacture, distribution, and sale of other lethal weapons, such as martial arts items, knives, and bayonets, be regulated."
The CDC’s anti-gun ambitions found a more permanent home in 1986 when Congress passed the Injury Prevention Act. Sponsored by noted gun-control advocate Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), the legislation tasked the CDC with combating injuries, in part by doling out piles of taxpayer cash to “public and nonprofit private entities and individuals” for “research.” That same year, CDC established the Division of Injury Epidemiology and Control (DIEC), which would later become the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC).
Taking an expansive view of its new injury mandate, CDC officials would now openly advocate for gun control.
In the Feb. 3, 1989 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), acting chief of the CDC’s Intentional Injuries Section of the DIEC Patrick O’Carroll noted, “We’re going to systematically build a case that owning firearms causes deaths. We’re doing the most we can do, given the political realities.”
In July of that year, O’Carroll wrote the journal to contend that he was misquoted in the piece, claiming “Such an approach would be anathema to any unbiased scientific inquiry because it assumes the conclusion at the outset and then attempts to find evidence to support it.”
Of course, O’Carroll was correct about the nature of scientific inquiry. However, there is little in the CDC’s prior or subsequent conduct to suggest that JAMA quoted O’Carroll inaccurately or that his quote did not represent agency policy.
Just four months later, in November 1989, the CDC was back to openly calling for gun restrictions. In an item published in “Advance Data,” a product of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, CDC Division of Analysis researchers Lois A. Fingerhut and Joel C. Kleinman gave away the game. The authors endorsed the fact that “The Public Health Service has targeted violence as a priority concern,” and explained that one of the 1990 Health Objectives for the United States was to “reduce the number of handguns in private ownership.”
The CDC adopted such a bias for heavy-handed gun-control measures that it eschewed firearm safety education efforts. A 1989 CDC-sponsored paper expressed a concern that the “safety benefits of such courses are outweighed by their ability to promote an interest in firearms, an interest that increases the numbers of firearms in circulation and the potential for both intentional and unintentional injuries.”
HHS Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, head of the CDC’s parent agency, declared in 1990, “I want to do everything in my power to discourage the use and availability of handguns.”
The dawn of the 1990s brought a more brazen willingness to collaborate with gun-control activists.
In January 1992, the CDC sponsored a symposium titled “Handgun Injuries: A Public Health Approach” at the University of Iowa. The event was attended by a Who’s Who of CDC and CDC-funded researchers—including Rosenberg, James Mercy and Arthur Kellerman. Casting aside any pretense of objectivity, the symposium hosted gun-control activist Sarah Brady of Handgun Control, Inc. (later renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence), who provided the symposium’s opening remarks. That same year, CDC’s Fingerhut was listed as a “reviewer” on materials published by Handgun Control, Inc. affiliate Center to Prevent Gun Violence (CPGV).
The overt bias continued in May 1993 with the release of a CDC report titled “Injury Control in the 1990s: A National Plan for Action.” A portion titled “Support for the National Plan” explained that a host of “organizations participated in the development or review of the national plan” and listed Handgun Control, Inc. and CPGV as supporters of the document.
Unsurprisingly, the CDC plan read like a gun-control lobby wish list, recommending,"New legislative and regulatory efforts to be considered are to prohibit the manufacture, importation, and sale of handguns except in special circumstances; establish a national waiting period for all purchases of firearms, coupled with a mandatory criminal record background check; establish nationwide restrictive licensing of handgun owners whereby a handgun license would be granted only when a clear, legitimate need for possessing a handgun is demonstrated (e.g. for professional use)."
The item also advocated for empowering federal regulators with “broad authority to regulate the design and manufacture of firearms and ammunition.” Such regulation was the longtime goal of handgun-prohibition group Violence Policy Center (VPC). The group’s founder, Josh Sugarmann, sought to subject firearms to regulation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission or similar body, which he believed would result in a total ban on civilian handgun sales.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in October 1993 the CDC’s Mercy and Rosenberg participated in the Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan (HELP) Network Conference in Chicago, along with VPC’s Sugarmann. HELP Network organizer Katherine Christoffel described her group’s effort as “us[ing] a public health model to work toward changing society’s attitude toward guns so that it becomes socially unacceptable for private citizens to have handguns.”
A program from the 1995 HELP conference listed the CDC’s Fingerhut and Mercy as participants, along with gun-control lobby figures James and Sarah Brady, CPGV’s Dennis Hennigan and VPC’s Kristen Rand. As evidence of the “academic rigor” of the event, the luncheon speaker was yet-to-be-disgraced Emory University History Professor Michael Bellesiles. In 2002, the Columbia University Board of Trustees found that Bellesiles “violated basic norms of scholarship” in concocting his widely celebrated anti-gun treatise Arming America.
Also in 1995, the CDC bankrolled an anti-gun edition of the Injury Prevention Network Newsletter. The publication urged readers to engage in an array of anti-gun advocacy. This included commands to “put gun control on the agenda of your civic or professional organization,” “make your support for federal, state, and local gun laws known to your representatives,” and “organize a picket at gun manufacturing sites.”
By 1996, Congress had seen enough taxpayer money wasted on rank political advocacy. At NRA’s urging, lawmakers added a simple amendment to federal law making clear 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.”
Contrary to the media spin and the gun-control lobby’s wailing, the language doesn’t restrict the CDC from studying “gun violence.” It does, however, prohibit the kind of gun-control advocacy the agency reveled in between 1983 and 1996.
This past August, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced on CNN that the embattled agency would be getting back into the gun research business yet again. Attempting to ease legitimate concerns over a return to anti-gun advocacy, Walensky claimed, “I’m not here about gun control.” But, her agency’s history says otherwise.
Unlike in 1975, gun owners today have the benefit of history to know what the CDC is up to. Moreover, Joe Biden’s antipathy towards the Second Amendment and the broader rule of law suggest he intends to have the CDC pick up right where they left off in 1996. If so, NRA-ILA is prepared to rejoin the battle and fight the agency at every step.