The recent breakthrough in Congress on money for research into gun violence is notable more for the fact that it happened at all than for the amount of money to be spent. But it is a welcome change nonetheless that raises hopes America can begin to deal with this desperate and distinctly American problem.
For more than 20 years, as the U.S. has earned the unenviable distinction of having far more deaths from gun violence than other similarly wealthy and developed nations, Congress has appropriated zero funds for research into the problem. Yes, that’s zero.
Every time there’s another mass shooting, thoughts and prayers are dispatched. Politicians issue sincere-sounding statements, and then the usual suspects — namely the National Rifle Association and a majority of Republican members of Congress — dig their heels back in to oppose not only meaningful legislation but even research.
Meanwhile, day in and day out, Americans shoot each other to death for all sorts of reasons — drug deals, domestic spats, traffic disputes, accidents — and sometimes for no apparent reason. Sadly, we seem to have become so numbed by the rampant violence that we consider it hardly noteworthy if a shooter kills “only” two or three people.
And yet, Congress has not designated a penny for research into gun violence. Until now, even when the U.S. House approves funds, the Senate balks. The problem goes back to a measure passed in 1996, known as the Dickey Amendment, that blocked agencies from using federal money to advocate for gun control. The amendment has been interpreted to mean federal agencies can’t even study gun violence.
While there are legitimate points of debate about such things as banning certain types of guns and limiting where guns are allowed, it’s downright foolish to ban empirical research into the causes of and possible solutions to our serious gun violence problem. Every time there’s a mass shooting, every time a legislature discusses gun control, people argue about whether the root of the problem is mental illness, or too many guns, or certain types of guns, or something else.
Why not spend some federal dollars paying for thoughtful research that might answer some of those questions and show us a way to make things better?
To be sure, many of those who resort to gun violence are mentally disturbed. But aren’t there mentally disturbed people in other wealthy nations, nations with much lower rates of gun violence? What sets our country apart? What approaches work in other places, and could they work here? There are many questions, and far too few answers.
So it’s really good that, however belatedly, Democrats have managed to get $25 million to research gun violence as part of a government spending deal worked out by House and Senate negotiators. Half the money will go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and half to the National Institutes of Health. Here’s hoping this breakthrough, small as it is, will lead to a more enlightened approach and some real progress.