Gun violence research could be funded by Congress for first time in 20 years

Demonstrators hold up placards representing the number of the people who have died because of gun violence on Capitol Hill on June 20, 2019, during an event with gun violence prevention advocates.
Demonstrators hold up placards representing the number of the people who have died because of gun violence on Capitol Hill on June 20, 2019, during an event with gun violence prevention advocates.

For the first time in more than 20 years, Congress could approve federal funding to study gun violence, which kills nearly 40,000 Americans each year.

A House bill approved Tuesday includes $25 million for research, split evenly between the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts say the new allocation will allow researchers to conduct large-scale studies that get at the root causes of gun violence while ensuring that firearm regulation does not infringe on Second Amendment rights.

“It’s discovering what science can do for a problem like this. If you look at what science can do for heart disease, for cancer. It’s saved tens of thousands of lives,” said Mark Rosenberg, former director of CDC research on firearm violence. “This is going to unlock a vein of pure gold that people on both sides of the aisle will appreciate.”

The House vote comes just days after the seventh anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 26 people, including 20 children. It also comes amid a year that has seen nearly 400 mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot or killed, not counting the shooter), according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, including high-profile shootings in El Paso, Texas;  and Dayton, Ohio.

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Felipe Avila mourns outside a Walmart in El Paso after a mass shooting on Aug. 4, 2019.
Felipe Avila mourns outside a Walmart in El Paso after a mass shooting on Aug. 4, 2019.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said he and his team of researchers have long relied on meager public funding and private grants that limit the scope of their research by forcing them to draw correlations between available data sets rather than conduct more in-depth studies that collect data on firearm access.

“Very, very rarely are we able to say, ‘Are the people … who are the target of a law, can you document that their misuse of firearms is targeted by this law?’ That’s a far more compelling piece of causal evidence than a correlation with population-level data,” Webster said.

“And on the other side of that, for studies that look at law-abiding gun owners, how did these laws affect your capacity to get a gun? These are basic, fundamental questions that we have very little data on that this new funding could open up,” he said.

Gun control advocates applauded the move to include funding for research.

“Make no mistake, the passage of this bill marks an important victory for the gun safety movement – for the first time in more than 20 years, Congress will be appropriating funding specifically for research on gun violence, which now kills more Americans than car accidents,” John Feinblatt, president of the anti-gun-violence nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a news release.

Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, co-founder of the eponymous gun violence prevention organization, said in a news release that the bill demonstrates a “change” in the country’s approach to gun violence.

“For far too long, the United States Congress put the political agenda of the gun lobby over our nation’s public health and safety. But today, with outraged Americans demanding solutions to gun violence and a new gun safety majority elected to the House of Representatives, change is happening,” Giffords said.

The National Rifle Association, however, cautioned the CDC against exploiting public funding.

“Everyone knows the NRA supports properly conducted research into the causes of violence. What we don’t support are taxpayer-funded efforts to weaponize the CDC for political ‘research’ favoring gun control. Fortunately, this legislation retains the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits the use of tax-payer funds to promote gun control,” spokesperson Amy Hunter said.

Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who co-founded a gun violence prevention organization.
Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who co-founded a gun violence prevention organization.

If approved, the bill would be the first to include funding explicitly for gun safety research since 1996. That year, Congress – under pressure from the NRA – approved the Dickey Amendment, which stated that the CDC could not “advocate or promote gun control.” Congress also slashed CDC funding by $2.6 million, the same amount that the center had spent on firearm violence research the previous year.

While the Dickey Amendment did not specifically ban research on gun violence, it had a “chilling effect” on the field, Webster said. It spurred the CDC to avoid research on firearms regulation and discouraged young researchers from pursuing the field.

“The true chilling effect was the pull-back of funds and the strong signal from Congress that, if you fund research that the gun lobby isn’t happy with, expect funding cuts,” Webster said.

Rosenberg, who directed CDC research on firearm violence at the time, said the Dickey Amendment reduced gun violence research to “a trickle.” From 1998 to 2012, the number of publications about gun violence declined 64%, according to a 2017 study by medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

The amendment “was a warning, a shot across the bow,” Rosenberg said. “It told researchers that, if you want to research gun violence, we can make your life miserable.”

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Then-representative Jay Dickey, R-Ark., who sponsored the amendment, later reversed his position and penned an op-ed in The Washington Post with Rosenberg, explaining the need for gun safety research and noting that there had been “almost no publicly funded research on firearm injuries” since 1996. In the op-ed, the authors admitted that “one of us served as the NRA’s point person in Congress.”

Last year, lawmakers clarified the language of the Dickey Amendment, making clear that it does not prevent research into gun violence.

The new funding is baked into a $1.37 trillion spending package that also includes money for President Donald Trump’s border wall and increases the age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21.

The package was released Monday and passed the House on Tuesday. It must pass the Senate and be signed by Trump by Friday to avert a government shutdown.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gun violence research funding included in bipartisan spending bill

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Pensacola shooting exposes ‘troubling’ exception in US gun policy

The shooting at a Florida air station that left three people dead and eight wounded last week has put the spotlight on federal guidelines that leave Americans vulnerable to attacks in their own homeland from a foreign source.

Investigators have said Saudi airman Mohammed Alshamrani launched a shooting spree Friday at Naval Air Station Pensacola with a Glock 45 handgun purchased legally from a licensed dealer despite not being a U.S. citizen or resident.

That’s because the gunman obtained a Florida hunting license, a relatively easy procedure that qualified him for one of the exceptions to the federal law that prohibits foreign nationals from purchasing firearms in this country.

Alshamrani, who was shot dead at the scene by sheriff deputies responding to the assault, was an officer in the Royal Saudi Air Force training in aviation at the base.

The website for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says foreigners who enter the U.S. with a non-immigrant visa are forbidden from possessing firearms or ammunition, unless they meet one of these exceptions:

The remains of Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, fatally shot at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, are transferred at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Dec. 8, 2019.

“(Having) a valid hunting license or permit, (being) admitted for lawful hunting or sporting purposes, certain official representatives of a foreign government, or a foreign law enforcement officer of a friendly foreign government entering the United States on official law enforcement business.’’

Experts on gun policy say that leaves too much wiggle room, especially the hunting license exclusion, which doesn’t establish what kind of weapons are allowable.

“This is a good example of a gun law that is loosely written,’’ said Robert Spitzer, an authority on gun policy who teaches at the State University of New York-Cortland.

“It’s troubling because it doesn’t specify the kind of gun. And it’s troubling because there seem to be no records, no data, no information about how many people are taking advantage of this federal rule about obtaining these weapons. In the abstract it’s a potential security problem, but of course now we know it’s a real security problem given this shooting in Pensacola.’’

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Supreme Court Indicates Gun Case May Be Moot : NPR

A view of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. Protections for 660,000 immigrants are on the line at the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
A view of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. Protections for 660,000 immigrants are on the line at the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

For the first time in 10 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has heard a major gun-rights case. But the drum roll of anticipation seemed to fade, as the debate in the high court Monday focused almost exclusively on whether the case should be dismissed as moot.

At issue was a New York law that allowed New York City residents to have a permit for a gun at home, but barred them from transporting the gun elsewhere except to seven New York City shooting ranges. Three handgun owners who had such “premises licenses” challenged the law as a violation of their Second Amendment right to bear arms because they could not transport their guns to shooting ranges and competitions outside the city or to second homes.

“So what’s left of this case?”

The problem for those gun owners was that New York state and New York City abandoned the challenged law earlier this year after the Supreme Court said it would review it.

“New York City and New York state actually gave them everything that they had asked for before this argument,” said New York City corporation counsel James Johnson after the argument. “That was made very plain in this argument today.”

Indeed, it was, and the court’s liberals drove home the point.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointedly asked: “So what’s left of this case?”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor piled on. You’re asking [the court] to decide a case “in which the other side has thrown in the towel and completely given you every single thing you demanded in your complaint.”

Can you transport a gun and stop for coffee?

But lawyer Paul Clement, representing the gun owners, fought back. He argued that the new regulations for New York City still only permit “continuous and uninterrupted” gun transport within the city. That, he suggested, might put in doubt a stop for coffee or a bathroom break.

Justice Stephen Breyer didn’t take that argument seriously, saying he doubted any police officer would arrest someone for stopping for coffee.

Representing the Trump Administration, Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall tried to argue that the case is still alive because the plaintiffs could be awarded damages.

Justice Ginsburg came to bat again, pointing out that the gun owners never asked for damages. Has “the Solicitor General ever asked this court to allow such a late interjection of a damages” claim in order to save a case from being thrown out as moot? she asked.

Wall conceded he knew of no such case.

That is the “democratic process”

Next up to the lectern was Richard Dearing, who serves as Deputy Counsel for the City of New York. He emphasized that this lawsuit challenged a premises license, not a carry license. A premises license, he noted, is granted for the home only, though it must allow certain limited transport of the licensed handgun.

Dearing said the plaintiffs asked only for specified additional transport of these guns, and the city in the end gave the handgun owners everything they had asked for.

That the city changed its laws, he suggested, “is a good thing, not a bad one. The government should respond to litigation, should assess its laws … when they are challenged.” That, he said, is the “democratic process.”

“So then why is this case moot?”

But suppose that, in addition to stopping for a cup of coffee, the gun owner stops to visit his mother for a couple of hours, posited Justice Samuel Alito. “Would there be any law that would violated?”

Dearing replied that those kinds of questions were never at issue when the old law was challenged.

“So then why is this case moot?” wondered Alito. “Because [the plaintiffs] didn’t get all that they wanted,” he insisted. “They wanted a declaration that the old law was unconstitutional, period.”

Dearing replied that the plaintiffs framed the case they brought; they asked for a court order that allowed them to transport handguns to shooting ranges outside the city and to homes outside the city. And they got what they asked for.

With Justices Alito and Neil Gorsuch overtly seeking to blunt the city’s mootness argument, at the end of the day the question was where the rest of the court stood.

Justice Clarence Thomas, a forceful advocate for gun rights, asked no questions, as usual.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh has a far more gun-friendly record than the justice he replaced last year, Justice Anthony Kennedy. But Kavanaugh too asked no questions.

New York City is committed to “closing the book” on its old law

Chief Justice John Roberts asked just a few questions, and only of the City of New York’s lawyer. He wanted to know if the city could deny a premises gun license to the plaintiffs in this case because they had admitted previously violating the law.

“Is the city committed to closing the book on that old rule,” asked Roberts?

Yes, replied lawyer Dearing, noting that the plaintiffs have already had their licenses renewed twice since challenging the old New York law.

Only once on Monday did any justice directly address the question posed by the original New York case: whether the city’s justification for its regulations were constitutional. “Are the people of New York City and state less safe now” under the new law than they were under the previous law that was challenged, asked Justice Alito?

“No, I don’t think so,” replied lawyer Dearing. “We made a judgment, expressed by our police commissioner, that it was consistent with public safety to repeal the prior rule.”

Alito pounced. “So you think the Second Amendment permits the imposition of a restriction that has no public safety benefit?

Dearing replied that the new regulations–allowing for more transport of premises licensed guns–will make enforcement more difficult. But he said it is still doable.

That hardly appeased Alito, but organizations advocating stricter guns laws were breathing easier. Their relief may be only temporary.

With Kavanaugh replacing the more moderate Kennedy, there now seems to be a conservative majority on the court, justices who will in future treat gun regulations with far more suspicion than in the past. And even if that day does not come this term, there are more test cases waiting in the wings.

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