Bookman: Celebrate loosening of purse strings to study gun violence

Georgia Recorder columnist Jay Bookman said Wednesday the $25 million Congress just allotted to study gun violence is important as a political landmark. He served on a panel at the State Bar of Georgia focused on the Second Amendment.

‘Tis the season for celebration, so let’s celebrate: For the first time in more than 20 years, Congress has agreed to finance research into one of the leading causes of death in the United States, a killer that takes more than 100 American lives a day and almost 40,000 annually.

Now, $25 million isn’t much money in the scheme of things, but the purpose matters far more than the amount. The funds are appropriated – half to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half to the National Institutes of Health – to fund research into “firearm injury and mortality prevention,” instructing researchers to “take a comprehensive approach to studying these underlying causes and evidence-based methods of prevention of injury, including crime prevention.”

Such research shouldn’t be controversial, but it is. Since 1996, and at the demand of the National Rifle Association, Congress has in effect banned all federal funding for research into gun-violence prevention. Are there laws or best practices that could make us safer, that could reduce the number of lives taken or destroyed by firearms? Why is the United States so prone to firearm violence compared to other nations? What could you, as an individual or family, do to reduce the risk of becoming a victim of such violence?

Until now, government-funded researchers weren’t allowed to even ask such questions.

The roots of the funding ban, known as the “Dickey Amendment,” go back to a 1993 study led by Arthur Kellerman, a longtime physician and public health researcher at Grady Hospital and Emory University. In that study, funded by the CDC, Kellerman’s team found that the presence of a firearm in a household significantly increased the odds of a gun-related fatality for household members and loved ones.

That finding – you’re safer without guns than with them – struck at the core of the gun industry’s business model, and it produced a backlash so intense that some in Congress initially wanted to eliminate the entire Center for Injury Prevention and Control as punishment. Instead, they settled on language banning the CDC and later the NIH from any work that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

The message was received, loud and clear. Science and research that could have informed public debate and perhaps saved countless lives instead never took place, all because powerful people did not want to know the answers and in fact wanted not to know the answers. The ban loomed so large that within the CDC, the word “firearm” became known as the “f-word,” and was seldom, if ever, used in official documents.

One of those who deserves credit for working to overturn the research ban is U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, who lost a son to gun violence. On the Senate side, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson also pushed related legislation. But even in the press release announcing his bill in September, Isakson’s office referred repeatedly to research into “the recent increase in acts of mass violence,” but never once mentioned guns or firearms.

That’s fine. What matters now is that the ban has been breached, eliminating what had been a powerful symbol of the NRA’s death grip on gun-safety policy. The fact that the ban has been reversed without so much as a whimper of protest from the NRA tells us that finally, after far too long, the political environment has begun to turn in favor of sanity, if only in this one narrow policy area.

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.