President Obama Pledges to Lift Restrictions on Federally Funded Gun Research

Congressional Action Still Necessary

Published Jan 16, 2013

WASHINGTON (January 16, 2013) – President Obama today said he would issue a memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other agencies to conduct more gun violence research. But ensuring the long-term viability of federal scientific research into gun violence will require congressional action, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and its supporters in Congress have instituted restrictions on federal funding for gun violence research at the CDC since 1996 and at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 2011. The law prohibits research that “advocates or promotes gun control.” Because this language is unclear, there has been little federal research related to gun violence. In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences identified several significant gaps in gun violence research that could better inform policy.

“The law is so vague it puts a virtual freeze on gun violence research,” said Michael Halpern of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “It’s like censorship: when people don’t know what’s prohibited, they assume everything is prohibited.”

Andrew Rosenberg, the center’s director, said the White House’s interpretation that the law does not prohibit gun violence research is helpful, but not enough to clarify the situation for scientists and science agencies.

“The White House is making the right move in pushing for more gun violence research. But now scientists will have one interpretation of the law from the executive branch and another from Congress,” Rosenberg said. “There is broad agreement that Congress needs to undo the mistakes it has made in restricting gun violence research. Otherwise, we’re going to keep flying half-blind when it comes to knowing what is really effective for curtailing gun violence.”

Former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), who secured the CDC research restrictions in 1996, published an op-ed last year expressing his regret for doing so and calling for more research. After Dickey left Congress, the NRA worked with Rep. Danny Rehberg (R-Mont.) to similarly limit grants for gun research at the NIH in 2011.

President Obama also pledged to issue guidance regarding the Affordable Care Act, claiming that the law does not prohibit doctors from asking patients about firearms in their homes. The NRA worked with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to insert language into that act that some health care providers have said limits doctors from asking about firearms in the home.

For more background, please see information Halpern has compiled related to these restrictions on UCS’s blog, The Equation.