Public health demands an end to restrictions on gun violence research
As a trauma surgeon with experience treating devastating firearm injuries, I cannot comprehend why Congress has doubled down on a decades-old law restricting funding for research on gun violence. Lawmakers reaffirmed their dereliction in 2016 when they ignored the collective voice of 141 medical organizations who sent a letter urging repeal of the 1996 Dickey Amendment because of its "dramatic chilling effect" on research into an issue of increasing importance.
It is past time to repeal the Dickey Amendment so policymakers can make informed decisions about the effects of gun violence on public health.
Would lawmakers act if they understood my experience of working to save a gunshot victim by diving elbows-deep into his open abdomen while his blood cascaded onto the floor?
Would lawmakers finally act if they regularly had to comfort yet another anguished family after informing them of the premature death of a loved one?
If exposed to this reality, would Congress perform its duty to promote and protect public health? Would you, as a citizen, demand more?
Once again, a mass shooting has reignited the national discussion about gun violence. But mass shootings cause just 0.5 percent of firearm fatalities — a tiny fraction of the 39,000 annual deaths, enough bodies to fill the American Airlines Center to capacity nearly twice.
So why do members of Congress persist in hiding behind the Dickey Amendment?
They do so because they can. They do so because we let them. They do so because they are shielded by the sanitized narrative about gun violence that dominates our public discourse — a narrative that obscures the physical destruction of the victims and the psychological wounds of the survivors.
Without sound research, we will rely on policies that lack any scientific basis. We do not know if raising the age limit to purchase firearms will have meaningful impact on gun violence. We do not know if arming teachers will enhance the safety of our children. We do not know what effect a three-day waiting period will have. Decisions like these require reliable information, not emotional guesswork.
Perhaps Congress is unwilling to admit what science already tells us. We know that the mental health argument is a disingenuous distraction — FBI statistics show that few mass shooters have a mental disorder. We know that racial disparities in firearm deaths exist, that they disproportionately affect communities of color. Gun violence is a complex issue, and any policy focused on the small fraction of deaths caused by mass shootings will have a negligible effect on public health.
Science and lawmakers have worked together to improve public health before, implementing effective policies on seatbelts, helmets and outbreaks of infectious diseases. But, when it comes to gun violence, Congress continues to reinforce its own ignorance, sacrificing public health for partisan gain.
If Congress is serious about promoting and protecting public health, it must repeal the Dickey Amendment. Even Congressman Jay Dickey himself spent the latter years of his life lobbying against his signature contribution to gun legislation. "We need to turn this over to science and take it away from politics," he said.
If only Congress had the courage to heed his advice.
Dr. Brian H. Williams is a trauma surgeon and a Dallas Morning News Community Voices columnist. Twitter: @BHWilliamsMD