The mass shooting in Las Vegas prompted former Democratic Congressman Steve Israel of New York to write that these horrific events have little impact on public policy.
In a New York Times op-ed, Israel walked through a list of shootings -- the murder of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, the June 2016 mass shooting in an Orlando nightclub, and others -- and noted that despite the hand-wringing after each one, nothing changed.
Israel said Democrats were unable to enact reforms, including "our attempts to rescind the infamous Dickey Amendment, which prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from even researching the relationship between gun violence and public health."
"The result?" Israel wrote Oct. 2. "The government can’t study gun violence but is spending $400,000 analyzing the effects of Swedish massages on rabbits."
There are two elements to sift through here: Does the Dickey Amendment block government research into gun violence and public health? And is Washington studying Swedish massage on rabbits?
In 1996, with strong support from the National Rifle Association, Congress included an amendment by Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., in its omnibus spending bill. The amendment said "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."
In the same bill, Congress pulled $2.8 million aimed at gun injury research and assigned it elsewhere in the CDC.
Ever since, Washington and the CDC have steered clear of funding research that could run afoul of that amendment.
Israel said the provision prevents government-funded studies of the ties between guns and public health, but plenty of people say the rule is not binding.
Dickey himself joined with the former head of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Mark Rosenberg to challenge that long-held assumption.
"We believe strongly that funding for research into gun-violence prevention should be dramatically increased," they wrote in a 2016 public letter. "We do not see the congressional language against using federal funds ‘to promote or advocate gun control’ as a barrier to this research."
An article on the Harvard Law Petrie-Flom Center blog argued that the amendment bars research aimed at promoting gun control and not all research.
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., echoed that point in a letter to the CDC, saying the meaning had been "misconstrued." But that belief had its own consequences.
"As a result, public health researchers at the CDC and other federal agencies have been discouraged from conducting scientific research on gun violence," Carper wrote March 17, 2016. "Although the CDC self-directs a portion of its nearly $6.2 billion annual budget to a wide variety of intra- and extramural research, the CDC has been reluctant to devote funding to gun violence research without a specific appropriation from Congress."
Carper offered proof that the Dickey Amendment can co-exist with government gun violence studies. He noted that in 2015, the CDC assessed the causes of a rise in gun violence in Wilmington, Del.
In general, the impact of the Dickey Amendment is more political than legal. Research could move forward, but without an explicit signoff from Congress, there’s been limited activity.
After the 2012 Newtown slayings, President Barack Obama directed the CDC to conduct or fund research into the causes of gun violence. The impact was modest.
"As far as I can tell the CDC still correctly believes that gun research, or even mentioning guns, is too hot to handle," said director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center David Hemenway.
Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research director Daniel Webster also said there’s been no new funding from CDC or the National Institutes of Health.
Rosenberg told us, "The research scientists at CDC are very anxious to do this research, but the recent directors of CDC have been willing to let this eminently solvable problem fester because they fear that the NRA will prod Congress into cutting public health programs that are viewed as more central and critical to CDC's mission."
As for the $400,000 spent on studying the effects of Swedish massages on rabbits that Israel mentioned, yes, the government did that. (The exact amount was closer to $387,000.)
It gave the Ohio State University Sports Medicine Center money to build a small device that mimics the action of Swedish massage to see if the treatment reduced pain and inflammation. Rabbits were the test subjects.
The treatment helped, by the way. Researchers found that with the right mix of force, duration and frequency, there was "maximal recovery of muscle and joint function."
However, there’s an issue of timing with Israel’s statement. He said the government is currently spending money on this research. In fact, the study ended in 2014.
Israel spokesman Harrison Feuer didn’t argue that detail.
"The larger point that Congressman Israel was looking to accurately make is that the government has funded studies into various endeavors that are less impactful than guns on public health," Feuer said.
Israel said the Dickey Amendment prevents the CDC from researching the relationship between gun violence and public health.
As a matter of law, it only prevents money going toward research aimed at promoting gun control. But as a matter of politics, that distinction is murky, and as a result, research has been limited.
Israel’s point about Swedish massage on rabbits is off on the timing, but right on the substance.
Israel’s statement has some technical flaws, but the broader thrust is accurate.
We rate it Mostly True.
New York Times, Nothing Will Change After the Las Vegas Shooting, Oct. 2, 2017
U.S. Congress, Dickey amendment, Sept. 30, 1996
Office of U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, Carper questions CDC on gun violence prevention research, March 17, 2016
Mark Rosenberg and Jay Dickey, Statement, April 12, 2016
Harvard Law Petrie-Flom Center, The AMA Should Forget the Dickey Amendment — For Now, June 28, 2016
American Medical Association, AMA Calls Gun Violence "A Public Health Crisis;" Will Actively Lobby Congress to Lift Ban on CDC Gun Violence Research, June 14, 2016
Newsweek, The government won't fund research on gun violence because of NRA lobbying, Oct. 2, 2017
White House, Presidential Memorandum -- Engaging in Public Health Research on the Causes and Prevention of Gun Violence, Jan. 16, 2013
Los Angeles Times, The NRA has blocked gun violence research for 20 years. Let's end its stranglehold on science., June 14, 2016
Sen. Tom Coburn, 2014 Wastebook, October 22, 2014
Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Transverse forces in skeletal muscle with massage-like loading in a rabbit model, Oct. 13, 2014
USAspending.gov, Massage therapy grants, accessed Oct. 3, 2017
Email interview, Harrison Feuer, spokesman, Office of Steve Israel, Oct. 4, 2017
Email interview, David Hemenway, director, Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Oct. 4, 2017
Email interview, Daniel Webster, director, Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, Oct. 4, 2017
Email interview, Mark Rosenberg, former president, Task Force for Global Health, Oct. 4, 2017
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