AMA calls for end to ban on gun violence research

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 23 June 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i3529
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. Montreal

The American Medical Association, whose annual meeting declared gun violence in the United States a public health emergency earlier this month, will lend its formidable lobbying arm to efforts to overturn a congressional ban on government sponsored epidemiological research into factors behind gun deaths.

“An epidemiological analysis of gun violence is vital so physicians and other health providers, law enforcement, and society at large may be able to prevent injury, death, and other harms to society resulting from firearms,” said the association’s president, Steven Stack, in a statement.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used to carry out research into gun violence but stopped in 1996, when the Republican Congressman Jay Dickey of Arkansas sponsored a federal budget amendment stating that CDC funds could not “advocate or promote gun control.” Congress transferred the $2.6m (£1.8m; €2.3m) CDC budget for firearms injury research to brain research. The agency now collects only injury statistics, of which gun injuries are a subset, at a cost of about $100 000 a year.

President Barack Obama lifted the research ban through executive order three years ago, but Congress has refused to release funds for gun research, and in practice the ban remains in place, despite an attempt to sway Republican lawmakers last year that included the retired Dickey himself, who now calls the 1996 Dickey Amendment a mistake.

The AMA is a potent new ally, however, being one of the few lobbying organizations in Washington, DC, that can be compared in size and effectiveness to the National Rifle Association.

Interest in gun research is growing. Last week California’s Democratic majority legislature appropriated $5m to set up the California Firearm Violence Research Center.

But the distance that the US would have to travel to achieve meaningful gun control was highlighted on 20 June, when four bills with the modest goal of keeping guns from being sold to people on government terrorist watch lists failed in the Senate, considered the friendlier of the two chambers to efforts to control guns.

Although polls indicate that the US public is open to restrictions on military style semiautomatic rifles and extra controls for suspected terrorists, such weapons account for less than 1% of the roughly 33 000 gun deaths a year in the US.

The AMA has taken on a much harder challenge by targeting handguns, responsible for most deaths but paradoxically of far less concern to the US public.

On 22 June Democrats staged a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives, demanding a vote on gun control measures that they say will save lives. It follows the mass shooting in Orlando earlier this month in which 50 people were killed.1 The Democrats chanted and sang, disrupting business in the House, and continued their protest into Thursday 23 June. They are calling for a vote on measures to expand background checks and block gun purchases by people on the FBI’s terror watch list. They want the House to stay open next week to debate and vote on gun legislation rather than take a planned week long recess.

A study published this week in JAMA found that a ban on rapid fire long guns in Australia accelerated the decline in total firearms deaths.2



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