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Congress Is Throwing A Little Money At Gun Violence Research. It Might Go A Long Way.

The Dickey Amendment is dead. Or, maybe it’s more that it has eroded into a shadow of what it once was. First passed into law in 1996, the Amendment is widely credited with ending federal funding of gun violence research in the United States. But while Dickey is technically still on the books, Democrats have chipped away at its power over the last couple years — first with an official clarification that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can study gun violence, and now a bipartisan agreement to provide $25 million of actual funding to back that up.

That news is straightforward enough. But news outlets around the country have framed this week’s spending deal — which still needs to be approved by the Senate and President Trump — as potentially the first federal funding for gun violence research in 20 years. They’re wrong. As we reported last month, the Dickey Amendment isn’t a solid wall preventing all gun violence research from happening; it’s more of a scarecrow. The federal government has funded gun violence studies all along, mostly through agencies such as the Department of Justice.

Meanwhile, the $25 million (half of what Democrats originally asked for) is basically pennies for the guy. “It seems like it’s more a symbolic victory, in so much as they could finally make the announcement that the embargo had been lifted,” said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Minnesota’s Metropolitan State University. His research includes developing a database of mass shootings funded by the National Institute of Justice, the research agency serving the Department of Justice.

But there is more to this than mere symbolism. The kind of research the CDC and NIH are most likely to support is a study that treats gun violence as a public health issue. That’s no different than the way those agencies often approach other kinds of fatal injuries, such as car crashes, Densley told me. But that approach is controversial — the whole reason the Dickey Amendment exists is to block this kind of research. And looking at guns from a public health perspective does change how researchers approach violence.

Traditionally, gun violence research has been done through a criminal justice lens, Densley said. That basically means the focus tends to get narrowed to the use of guns in crime or by convicted criminals. Researchers ask questions like, “how do firearms get into the hands of felons?”

But gun violence is something that happens outside a criminal context, too. Suicide, the biggest cause of gun deaths in this country, is not the same as a robbery, and the people who use guns to kill themselves are often legal gun owners. Likewise, the causes of gun violence can have deeper roots than “needed a weapon to commit a crime.” The impacts of that violence can extend beyond the individuals who held (or were physically harmed by) the weapon.

And that’s where the public health framework comes in, Densley said. Research done in this way looks for clusters of violence the same way you might look for cancer clusters or outbreaks of a virus. Like that kind of epidemiology, public health research looks for what puts certain people and places more at risk — and what can be done to reduce those risks. Public health research asks questions about how gun violence in a community affects other kinds of risks — stress-related illnesses, for instance, or educational outcomes. This approach makes a lot of sense to many doctors and social scientists, but it’s controversial because groups like the National Rifle Association see it as a backdoor to push through limits on legal gun ownership that have more to do with ideology than data.

But even researchers like Densley, whose work exists squarely in the criminal justice context, say the public health perspective is important to prevent violence. For example, he said, the teens who go on to become school shooters often steal improperly secured guns from their parents or borrow guns from other legal owners. “That speaks to the need for a public health campaign,” he told me. “Like friends don’t let friends drive drunk. You can apply that to the idea friends don’t let friends borrow guns.”

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.