On Tuesday, in the wake of Sunday's Orlando gay nightclub shooting, the American Medical Association announced that gun violence in America had become a "public health crisis" that required a comprehensive public health response and solution.
Of course, finding solutions to public health crises requires public research. And public research on gun violence, as of now, is nearly impossible, thanks to a 20-year-old law whose original author has stated that he regrets introducing it.
In 1996, then-Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas authored a bill that had the effect of limiting public funds for studying gun violence and its effects on public health. The text of the bill stipulates that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control."
But as Dickey told NPR in an interview in October, the bill was simply designed to make sure the research wouldn't end up fueling gun control advocacy. This was at a time when the NRA, and anti-government paramilitary groups, were in their ascendancy, following the election of Bill Clinton and passage of major gun control legislation.
But Dickey told NPR that he now regrets the lack of information about why gun deaths occur—a void directly related to the passage of his bill.
NPR: You're saying there might be some way to not interfere with anybody's right to own a gun but regulate it in such a way that fewer people are killed by guns?
DICKEY: That's correct. I can't tell you what that might be, but I know this. All this time that we have had, we would've found a solution, in my opinion. And I think it's a shame that we haven't.
The Dickey Amendment didn't ban gun research outright. But as former CDC researcher Seema Yasmin wrote in the Dallas Morning News this week, the amendment had a chilling effect at the agency that would be responsible for carrying out such research.
When I worked at the CDC, I asked injury prevention researchers what the Dickey Amendment meant to them. They told me they were worried about hurting their careers and losing the center money if they continued to study gun violence. They shifted their research elsewhere.
Yasmin told me that while there is some good data about the extent of gun violence, treating the phenomenon as an epidemic requires an understanding of its underlying causes. And without the ability to use federal funds to research gun violence, our understanding of the topic is dangerously limited.
"It's how public health researchers approach other disease areas such as heart disease and car accidents," she said. "Based on data about who is most likely to have a heart attack and where car crashes occur most often, policies can be changed or introduced to lower a person's risk of heart attack or to make roads safer."
Looking at the role of exposure to violence in the media, or the effectiveness of certain gun safety measures, would help get at these problems, she said.
Despite the unending stream of gun deaths in America, the Dickey Amendment was renewed in the government's most recent spending bill. In an email to me, a representative for Rep. Mike Thompson (D-California), chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said that the Congressman would move to oppose its inclusion for the next fiscal year's spending bills. Thompson will also continue to seek passage of H.R. 1076, which would prohibit those on the FBI’s terrorist watch-list from purchasing firearms, and H.R. 1217, which would require background checks for all commercial gun sales.
Whether or not either bill is brought to the House floor for a vote will be determined by Republican leadership. A spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan did not reply to an emailed request for comment. In his public statements since Sunday's attack, Ryan has tried to shift the narrative of blame toward "radical Islam" and away from gun violence.
“Let’s be clear: this was another act of war against America by radical Islam,” Ryan told reporters this week according to the Wall Street Journal. He added the House would be escalating its efforts to combat militant Islamic terrorism. On Monday, he was shouted down by Democrats chanting "Where's the bill? after a moment of silence for the Orlando shooting victims.
The spokeswoman for Rep. Thompson, the gun violence task force chair, told me that "in the more than 3 years since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, there have been 1,158 mass shootings, 34,000-plus people have been killed by someone using a gun, 30 moments of silence have been observed by Congress, and yet, the House has not taken a single vote on any legislation to address gun violence."
They could start, at the very least, by allowing federal health researchers to do their jobs.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.