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Orlando Massacre Fuels Call to End Federal Roadblock of Gun Violence Research

As the nation continues to reel from the aftermath of the Orlando shooting massacre, researchers are making appeals anew for Congress to lift restrictions that prohibit two health-oriented federal agencies from studying gun violence.

“There seems to be no compromise philosophically between political factions on the issue of gun safety, so it seems that the only hope for resolution is to turn to objective findings from scientific research,” said Dewey Cornell, professor of education at the University of Virginia and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project.

“However, the U.S. Congress has taken an anti-science position when it comes to research on gun safety,” Cornell said. “It is as if the Congress does not want to know whether there are policies that could reduce gun violence.”

Cornell made his remarks this week in response to the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 50 dead—including the shooter, Omar Mateen, who reportedly pledged his allegiance to ISIS during the attack—and dozens more wounded.

His voice is among a growing chorus of calls for Congress to lift the ban, including from the American Educational Research Association, which also called on Congress to lift restrictions that prohibit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other Department of Health and Human Services agencies from conducting gun violence research.

“These restrictions have stymied the development and implementation of evidence-based policies and programs that foster gun safety,” AERA executive director Felice J. Levine said.

“AERA has pressed this point before, in statements on the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School; in Charleston, S.C.; and at Umpqua Community College,” Levine said. “It is incumbent on all of us to turn our attention to taking real action to solve this ongoing national crisis rather than merely episodically expressing our concern.”

This is at least the second time that Congress has been asked this year to lift the restrictions that the federal agencies have interpreted as precluding them from conducting any research on gun violence.

Back in April, a coalition of 141 medical organizations sent a letter to four senior members of the House and Senate appropriations committees that urged them to restore funding for gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to The Trace, a website that reports on issues of gun violence.

Diverse reached out to one of those senators—Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee—but did not get a response.

The letter—released by Doctors for America—alludes to the fact that, while there is not an outright ban on federal research into gun violence, that has been the practical effect of the so-called Dickey amendment, included in 1996 as a rider to the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations bill.

“The language stated that the CDC could not fund research that would ‘advocate or promote gun control,’ and the language has remained in each subsequent annual funding bill,” the letter states. “At the same time, Congress cut CDC funding for this research.

“Although the Dickey amendment does not explicitly prevent research on gun violence, the combination of these two actions has caused a dramatic chilling effect on federal research that has stalled and stymied progress on gathering critical data to inform prevention of gun violence for the past 20 years,” the letter continues. “Furthermore, it has discouraged the next generation of researchers from entering the field.”

Cornell said research can play an important role in illuminating what works to reduce gun violence.

“There is promising scientific evidence that some limitations on gun access for certain high risk individuals are effective in reducing violent crime, but, without rigorous, large-scale studies, we cannot reach firm conclusions,” Cornell said. “We need to find what works so that we can do more of it and also find what does not work and stop trying that, too.”

In addition to calling for Congress to lift the ban on federal research into gun violence, Levine also expressed her aggrievedness over the Orlando mass murder as a “hate crime that is an assault on the entire LGBTQ community.” She called on researchers to “redouble its commitment to examining how bigotry can be eliminated and respect for diverse communities fostered.”

“This and other recent tragedies rooted in hate raise a broad range of societal and policy issues that are at the core of education and education research,” Levine said of the Orlando shooting. “Scholars, policy makers, and education practitioners have an important role to play in addressing many of the issues underlying the spread of extremism, the persistence of prejudice, and the prevalence of gun violence.”

She added: “Developing and promoting research-based programs and policies to reduce the risk of violence on campuses and in other public areas needs to be a major focus of education research.”

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