For the first time since 1996, the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee held a March 7 hearing exploring the need for federally funded public health research on preventing gun deaths and injuries.
Opening the hearing, Subcommittee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) characterized the issue as a “public health emergency” like the opioid epidemic, stating, “It is time we support public research of gun violence too.”
She described the impact of the “Dickey amendment,” language that has been included in the annual spending bill for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) since the 1990s, prohibiting the use of HHS funding “to advocate or promote gun control.”
“It did not ban the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] from research,” she noted. “However, it had a chilling result, severely discouraging it.”
In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Ranking Member Tom Cole (R-Okla.) also pointed to comments from HHS Secretary Alex Azar and other members of the administration indicating that CDC has the authority to conduct such research. Reflecting on his tenure as chair of the subcommittee, he stated, “We were able to substantially increase funding for the NIH, the CDC, and a host of related entities. And we made it clear that nothing prevents these entities from pursuing research related to gun violence.”
Democrats on the panel and three of the four witnesses, however, emphasized the importance of dedicated funding for such research, while Republicans expressed concern about directing science agencies to focus on specific areas.
In response to a question from Chair of the full Appropriations Committee, RAND Senior Behavioral Scientist Andrew Morral, Ph.D., stated, “We do need dedicated research funding for this, but I know that are there are those who have suggested that dedicated research funding is not inconsistent with retaining the Dickey amendment.”
He went on to describe a suggestion from some stakeholders that lawmakers “keep the Dickey amendment as a kind of ‘guard rail’ on any research program, but that we have dedicated research funding, an appropriation, for firearm violence research so that we can do the non-policy/advocacy research.”
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) echoed Dr. Morral’s characterization of the Dickey amendment as a “a guard rail, that’s all,” and noted, “We could earmark funds to go for this, but that’s kind of the purpose of the CDC and the NIH … We could kind of force them to spend money on it, but that’s an unusual approach to take … They’re the experts, I think they should decide what’s spent.”
Emphasizing the value of finding “common ground,” Rep. Cole in his closing remarks expressed interest in exploring some of the suggestions discussed at the hearing.
“You’ve shown a lot of areas where we could move ahead, I think, on common ground,” he told witnesses. “And I frankly like the idea of sort of keeping the Dickey amendment as a guard rail, because again, that doesn’t prohibit research.”
At the same time, he indicated, “Resources are available. We will have our discussion about whether or not we should direct it. I think that’s a legitimate discussion, and there are some dangers there. We’re pretty careful about trying to let researchers decide what areas of research make sense and let scientists decide which avenues of inquiry are important.”
As those discussions continue, he also noted, “And hopefully we don’t jump to policy conclusions before that research is completed.”
In addition to Dr. Morral, witnesses included Daniel Webster, ScD, Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research; Ronald Steward, MD, FACS, Director of Trauma Programs, American College of Surgeons Committee on Trauma; and John Lott, PhD, President, Crime Prevention Research Center.
The AAMC was among 166 medical, research, and public health organizations that sent a Feb. 21 letter to Appropriations leaders, recommending $50 million to the CDC to support public health research to support research into firearm morbidity and mortality prevention [see Washington Highlights, March 1].