Former CDC director says research could end unintentional gun deaths among children and teens

A former official with the Centers for Disease Control said Monday “it’s crazy,” the government blocks research into how to prevent unintentional gun deaths among children and teens.

Mark Rosenberg, former director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, told the Associated Press more accurate data into how many children die from accidental firearm discharges would inform better policy decisions and potentially eliminate the unintentional deaths completely.

“I think people 30 years from now are going to look back at this time and say, ‘My God, how did we, as parents, as a nation, tolerate these deaths? These shooting deaths where a toddler kills a sibling or where a child is gunned down by a gun that they found in their home — how did we ever put up with that?’” Rosenberg said, according to the Associated Press. “We use the word ‘accident’ and lull ourselves into this deadly complacency that says, ‘This is just the cost of having firearms in our country’. It’s not.”

The CDC has been reluctant to venture into gun violence research over the last 20 years, fearing repercussions from the Dickey Amendment.

Congress tucked the controversial amendment into the 1996 spending bill, stipulating no CDC funding “made available for injury prevention and control could be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

It’s been a sore spot for Democrats and gun control advocates alike who have tried and failed to remove the amendment from subsequent spending bills, including last year’s effort from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and 110 congressional Democrats to get the language struck from the 2016 budget.

Supporters of the Dickey Amendment, however, say the so-called research “ban” it imposed was necessary after years of unabashed bias from CDC leadership — including Rosenberg, who lead the agency during the 1990s.

Dr. Timothy Wheeler, of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, rehashed the history in a November 2015 editorial for The Hill. He recalled Rosenberg’s statements to The Washington Post as wanting the CDC to create a public perception of firearms as “dirty, deadly — and banned” and he said the agency routinely funded flawed, biased studies aimed at promoting gun control.

“Congress in fact simply directed the CDC to stop promoting gun control,” Wheeler said. “To reasonable minds this is not at all controversial. Congress should ignore the tricksters and continue holding the CDC to its mission of objective research, not pushing for gun control.”

Although the CDC steers clear of gun violence research, the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice awarded $3.3 million to five institutions studying ways to reduce gun violence in October.

In an Oct. 25 press release, the DOJ Institute of Justice said “the results of this research are expected to strengthen our knowledge base and improve public safety by producing findings with practical implications for reducing intentional, interpersonal firearms violence.”

In the meantime, media outlets devise their own databases for tracking gun deaths — whether it be The Washington Post’s police-involved shooting tracker or, most recently, a joint investigation by the Associated Press and USA Today Network into accidental gunshot deaths among minors.

Last week, CDC officials released statistics showing 77 children and teens died in accidental shootings last year.

The Associated Press and USA Today argued the figure was too low, based on their own analysis of accidental gunshot deaths declared so by “investigating agencies.” The total figure the media outlets settled on for last year is 141.

The Associated Press says CDC officials admit their count is low because coroners classify “accidents” on death certificates differently.

It’s a factor one Tennessee coroner argued is exactly why media accounts of accidental gunshot deaths can be unreliable, too.

Adele Lewis, Tennessee’s deputy chief medical examiner, told Nashville Public Radio in October, collecting data on accidental shootings isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

“You would think it would be easy … but obviously it’s much more nuanced and complicated,” she said.

Lewis said media outlets often misreport the circumstances around supposed-accidental shootings — which often turn out to be murders — while medical examiners use a specific set of standards to classify a death as truly an accident, versus a suicide or homicide.

Personal relationships can also impact a final determination of cause of death, too, she said.

“For the county medical examiners who are there, maybe in a small rural county … know the families of the people who are dying of gunshot wounds, … there is a stigma attached to suicide and they don’t want to call it a suicide,” Lewis said, per Nashville Public Radio.

Lewis’s interview came after CDC officials erroneously reported Tennessee’s accidental gunshot deaths in 2014 had skyrocketed from ninth in the nation to first in less than a year.

Dr. John Lott, founder of the Crime Prevention Research Center and author of “The War on Guns” said he alerted the agency to the mistake.

Health officials with the CDC later blamed a “coding error” for the mishap and warned the 2014 results “should be interpreted with caution.”