Calls for CDC gun violence studies raises specter of Dickey Amendment

One of the favorite talking points of gun control advocates is the need for studies regarding gun violence in America.  The claim usually includes an insistence that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been banned from doing the desired research.

This stems from the Dickey Amendment added as a rider to the 1996 federal budget that set aside money for the CDC.  Dickey, a representative in the U.S. House from Arkansas, wrote language into the spending bill that declared 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.”  Recently, he has expressed regrets over the limit he placed on research funding, suggesting that some studies could have been used to reduce the number of deaths that occur due to gunfire while respecting the protections of gun rights afforded by the Second Amendment.

The Dickey Amendment was added in response to the NRA’s complaint about Arthur Kellermann’s 1993 study, “Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home.”  As I’ve discussed before, that paper had a number of methodological flaws, and it’s understandable that supporters of gun rights would object to more studies that used sloppy technique to draw wild conclusions.

The lack of funding for gun violence research by the CDC has had the effect of discouraging work by others.  But one important question is what studies would lead to any useful information that we don’t already have.

As is well known by both supporters and opponents of gun rights, about two thirds of gun deaths are suicides.  But those deaths total some 50.9% of total suicides in the United States.  But hanging is also a common, and if we consider international data, the latter becomes the most frequently used method. Australia serves as a case study here, since the 1997 gun controls removed large numbers of firearms from private hands.  This reduced the number of firearms suicides, but hanging has increased as a substitute method, particularly among young men.

Of the remaining one third of gun deaths, nearly all of them are homicides.  And here, the CDC is not the best agency to address this category.  The agency’s mission statement shows the problem here:  “Whether diseases start at home or abroad, are chronic or acute, curable or preventable, human error or deliberate attack, CDC fights disease and supports communities and citizens to do the same.”  But homicides aren’t a disease.  They are the result of behaviors.  And since the vast majority of homicides are criminal acts performed in a society, it would make sense to have the people who are the specialists in this subject doing the studies:  criminologists and more generally sociologists.  This is why researchers like Andrew V. Papachristos would be good choices to do the work here.

The bottom line here is that I’m not against studies.  Science has brought us to the complex society that we have today, and this field has also shown us many wonders of the world that it has also allowed us to comprehend.  But doing valid science requires an understanding of the subject and its context.  And there is also the expectation on the part of those providing the funds that the research will be focused on things we don’t already know and that will lead to meaningful results.  If, for example, we have a study that asks about the effect of removing guns from people on the rate of suicide, the conclusions will only be significant if it can be shown that other methods don’t replace firearms.  And such a study would really fail to get at the real question, namely the one about why people kill themselves in the first place.

Studies done right grow the volume of knowledge, and we should all be in favor of those.  But they have to be done in a way that meets the standards of good research in the subject under consideration, and in broader terms, they must be taken in the context of what kind of society we want.  It might be that the safest society is one with the least personal choice, but many of us don’t have any wish to accept that level of protection.  Science tells us what’s out in the world and how to go from here to there, but it’s up to us to decide which particular path we will take.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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