PD Editorial: What can’t be done about gun violence, and why not

As a quick internet search reveals, public money has been spent to study the gambling habits of monkeys and to audit Wikipedia entries for gender bias. But gun violence is off limits.|

Why are Americans so prone to gun violence?

Don’t expect an answer from the federal government. As a quick internet search reveals, public money has been spent to study the gambling habits of monkeys and to audit Wikipedia entries for gender bias. But gun violence is off limits.

Congress sealed the checkbook.

(Yes, writing that sentence is as mind-boggling as reading it.)

About 100,000 Americans are killed or wounded annually, yet since 1996, Congress has effectively barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using federal dollars to research the causes of gun violence. Four years ago, the prohibition was extended to the National Institutes of Health.

Some gun advocates will quibble, as the budget rider in question refers to “gun control” as opposed to “gun violence.” However, as one physician wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out.”

Would anyone support an end to government-funded cancer research? Or banning the use of tax dollars to search for a cure to Alzheimer’s disease? Ignoring a problem won’t make it go away, and hamstringing the nation’s leading research institutions won’t produce solutions.

Even the law’s sponsor admits it was a mistake.

“Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners, in the same fashion that the highway industry continued its research without eliminating the automobile,” Jay Dickey, an ex-congressman from Arkansas, said in a letter directed to his former House colleagues last year.

Rep. Mike Thompson, a Democrat from St. Helena who owns guns and enjoys shooting sports, assumed a leading role on gun safety issues after 20 children and six adults were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. Thompson expanded his effort from universal background checks to include restoration of research funding after receiving Dickey’s letter.

California budgeted $5 million this year for a gun violence research center at UC Davis. But, as is so often the case, progress in Congress has been slow.

Thompson has, however, gained allies in the Senate, where 23 Democrats signed a letter calling for repeal of the Dickey amendment.

One of them is Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who said the federal ban “defies science, defies knowledge and defies common sense,” according to a report last week in the Oregonian newspaper.

Congress is currently enjoying its longest summer recess in at least 60 years and plans only a brief session after Labor Day before adjourning again until the election.

There’s no realistic hope that universal background checks or any other significant gun safety legislation will pass this year. But the Dickey amendment could easily be undone in appropriations bills (if Congress takes them up) or, as is more likely, a continuing resolution to allow the government to stay open when the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

Independent research won’t undermine the Second Amendment, but it may provide some insights into the cause of ghastly mass shootings and how they could be prevented. Even the most zealous gun advocates should see the wisdom in that.

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