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Health and Human Services chief says he will "be proactive on the research initiative" as it relates to guns

Funding for research on gun violence has been lacking for decades due to political pressure

CNN  — 

After previous mass shootings, Democratic lawmakers and victims’ families have called for more restrictive gun laws and more research, but not much has changed. This time, though, the script is different – leaving experts wondering whether it will matter.

The violence Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is the country’s eighth school shooting this year, “and it’s only February,” as Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Florida, pointed out during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Thursday.

Castor said a provision called the Dickey Amendment, in place for decades, has had a “chilling effect” and essentially kept the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from doing substantial gun violence, safety and prevention research, like “we do with automobile accidents that has ended up saving a lot of lives over time.”

The amendment, a rider in a government spending bill that went into effect in 1997, says 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.”

At Thursday’s hearing, Castor asked Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar point-blank whether his agency would conduct more gun violence research in the wake of the shooting. Azar told the committee that he did not interpret the rider as restricting gun research. “My understanding is that the rider does not in any way impede our research mission. It is simply about advocacy,” he said.

When pressed again on whether he would “actively speak out” and “be proactive on the research initiative” as it relates to guns, Azar responded that “we certainly will.”

“Our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we are in the science business and the evidence-generating business,” he said. “So I will certainly have our agencies working in this field, as they do across the whole broad spectrum.”

The National Rifle Association has not responded to requests for comment on Azar’s statements.

The rider does not specifically ban research on gun violence, but it has had an impact. The CDC’s investment of $2.6 million into firearm injury research from before it was put into the law was redistributed to study traumatic brain injury prevention.

Daniel Webster, an expert on gun violence, doesn’t think that what Azar said signals a significant change from the previous government stance.

Webster – the Bloomberg Professor of American Health at Johns Hopkins and a noted expert on gun policy – says Azar is right about the rider. “There is nothing in law that prevents the CDC from doing gun research,” he said. “It’s politics that prevents it.”

There are two things the CDC could do if it wanted to use money to fund gun research, Webster said: First, take funds appropriated for the research of domestic violence or youth violence and use that money to focus on a specific role that guns play in that violence. Second, Congress could make a special appropriation that directs the CDC to examine gun violence. However, he said, no one has had the political will to take either action.

“No one wants to anger the gun lobby. The CDC certainly would not want to do that and then see their budget cut, as has happened in the past,” Webster said.

The American Medical Association thinks gun violence research should start immediately.

“Gun violence today is a public health crisis in the United States; it knows no geographic, political or social bounds,” the group’s president, Dr. David O. Barbe, said in a statement Thursday. “An epidemiological analysis of gun violence is vital to address this public health crisis so our society can take action and prevent injury, death and other harms resulting from firearms.

“As in any urgent public health threat, we cannot devise effective solutions until we have a deeper understanding of the underlying causes that prompt gun violence,” he said. “With more than 30,000 Americans dying each year from gun violence and firearm-related accidents, the time to act is now.”

Gun researchers say government funding has been tight for decades, and private money has dried up too, studies show. Some doctors have called the lack of research a “national shame.” For years, professional groups like the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American College of Physicians have publicly said that more needs to be done.

“The reluctance to do research makes no sense,” Dr. Alan Leshner, CEO emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in October after the Las Vegas shootings. “It’s one of the few public health problems facing the country about which we have basically no scientific base of information to guide us how to deal with it.”

After the shootings at Sandy Hook in 2012, President Barack Obama issued an executive order directing federal agencies to study gun violence. A special committee at the National Academy of Sciences Engineering and Medicine, which Leshner chaired, created a report laying out research questions that could be tested to better understand gun violence: characteristics of firearm violence, including the types and numbers of firearms; risk and protective factors associated with firearm-related violence; firearm violence prevention and other interventions, including unauthorized gun possession; impact of gun safety technology; and a review of the impact of video games and other media.

But Leshner said that what happened next was “nothing.”

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    Webster said that any government funding for gun-related research has typically gone to areas that are related to gun violence, like mental health or the impact of violence in the media or poverty, rather than to gun violence itself. He’s received some of those funds.

    He pointed out that this again may be the direction the administration will focus on, noting that Azar’s testimony followed a familiar pattern: On Thursday, Azar said his department would be “laser-focused” on work that would help people with mental illness rather than specifically emphasizing any research involving guns.

    “My hunch is, the CDC will find a way to use some of the funding for the non-gun-related aspect of mass shootings, so it will focus on this mental health component or on the influence of violence in the media on these shooters,” Webster said. “I will be shocked if there is a direct examination of gun violence or gun policy.”

    CNN’s Susan Scutti contributed to this report.