What strategies are most effective at preventing suicides?
How can public policy reduce accidental firearms injuries?
What public health measures can lessen the injuries and deaths caused by use of firearms in domestic disturbances?
These and other questions must be answered by scientific research. Among 30,000 gun deaths per year in the United States, more than half are suicides. Nowhere are the answers to gun violence more important than in Montana where the suicide rate is the worst in the nation, where the majority of suicides involve firearms, as do most partner-family member homicides, and the rate of unintentional firearms injuries to children exceeds the national average.
We aren’t getting rid of guns. Americans need to learn how to live with them — without harming themselves or other innocents.
But the United States’ foremost funder of public health research, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is prohibited by law from spending even one dollar to study gun violence. The prohibition, known as the Dickey Amendment, was tacked onto a must-pass House budget bill in 1996. A recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer described a 29-word amendment added on Page 245 of a 750-page bill.
Its namesake, former U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Arkansas, changed his mind about that amendment. In 2012, he co-authored a Washington Post column that said: “Most politicians fear talking about guns almost as much as they would being confronted by one, but these fears are senseless. We must learn what we can do to save lives. It is like the answer to the question, ‘When is the best time to plant a tree?’ The best time to start was 20 years ago; the second best time is now.”
Dickey died in 2017, but the counterproductive amendment that bears his name continues to leave a gaping hole in the public policy debate. Americans mourn the victims and argue about solutions without the benefit of research into best practices for Americans.
Steps certainly can and should be taken to bring common sense to America’s gun laws. Some of America’s largest retailers, notably Wal-Mart and Dick’s Sporting Goods recently announced they will no longer sell long guns to people under age 21. Dick’s also announced that it will stop selling assault-style rifles, a step that Wal-Mart had already taken.
States can and should lead the way in making policy changes that improve public safety. Florida’s legislature last week started that process after hearing the pleas of students and other citizens affected by the massacre in Parkland, Florida.
Sound science is needed to inform state and federal policymaking. Those policies must be based on hard data. Best practices in public health aren’t created out of thin air; they are based in scientific evidence.
The U.S. Congress has another budget deadline looming next week — the fourth since the federal fiscal year began on Oct. 1 without a budget. The Dickey Amendment was stuck on an omnibus budget bill 22 years ago. It has stymied the research and knowledge-sharing America needs to protect the innocent and the public health. It’s way past time to axe the ban on funding gun violence research. Congress should eliminate the Dickey Amendment the same way it was created: by deleting 29 words from federal law in next week’s budget. Montana’s delegation, Jon Tester, Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte, should support sound science and vote to allow the CDC to resume research on gun violence as it studies other causes of death, injury and illness.