WASHINGTON — Democrats raved this week that they had scored language in the government spending package that would end a 22-year freeze on the federal government’s ability to research gun violence. Finally, they said, a two-decade hurdle to effective gun policy had been eliminated.
Not so fast, say experts, who predict the status quo is still likely to remain in full effect — and say the research language isn't the only gun policy provision in that bill that is unlikely to change much.
Thousands of protesters are flooding the nation's capital Saturday to call for more government action to address school violence through stricter regulations on the sale of guns and related items and greater academic research into the impact of current gun policies, among other measures.
Their arrival came just hours after most members of Congress left town for a two-week break, and President Trump signed the spending bill the House and Senate passed Thursday into law, funding the government through September.
Congressional Democrats have been calling on Republicans for years to allow or support greater action on guns. And for years, legislation has either been ignored or failed to pass one or both chambers. But the mass shooting last month in Parkland, Fla. where 17 people were shot and killed seemed to have been a potential tipping point on the Hill.
The $1.3 trillion government funding measure passed just weeks later included a bipartisan Senate plan, known as Fix NICS, that aims to improve state compliance with the national background check system. It included funding for school counseling and safety programs. And the spending bill was used to address the effective ban on government-funded research on guns.
Yet the gun-related provisions in the bill, say experts, represent no dramatic change — and, in some cases, no change at all.
Some of the measures involve an attempt to make the current regulations — which critics call insufficient — work somewhat more effectively. Fix NICS, for example, will penalize federal agencies that fail to report relevant records to the system and will direct more funding toward more accurate reporting of domestic violence records.
Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, as well as Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., among others, had been pushing for a floor vote for weeks on the bill, which they introduced in the aftermath of the Sutherland Springs, Texas shooting when a gunman killed 26 people last November.
Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who focuses on gun control and the Second Amendment, said that Fix NICS is “very modest” and is “not going to do much.”
“They don’t solve the biggest problem with our background check system which is that we don’t require background checks on all gun sales,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you have better information in the system. If somebody can still go to a gun show or go to a classified ad and buy a firearm from someone without going through a background check...I think it’s not nearly enough.”
A version of the STOP School Violence Act was also included in the bill, a measure designed to provide more training, more local law enforcement and security measures aimed at improving school safety — though it's unclear, say experts, how much of an impact those approaches might have.
“Our research finds evidence that improvements to [the national background check system] might reduce suicides and homicides. We have not studied programs like STOP, but it all looks reasonable,” said Andrew Morral, senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, where he leads an initiative to understand the effects of gun policies.
Other provisions in the bill appear to simply provide annual funding for existing programs.
Republicans have said the spending bill includes more than $2 billion for school safety and violence prevention — but Democrats have argued that the $2 billion figure is Republican spin because that total includes the standard funding for programs already in effect. Specifically, the bill makes available $75 million for state grants to develop and update school safety plans. It also includes $1.1 billion for grants that support mental health services for students as well as bullying and harassment prevention.
Meanwhile, the provision addressing the gun research freeze actually provides no funding — and, say experts, won't necessarily open the door to any new gun research, either.
That’s because it simply states the obvious: technically, there has never been an outright ban on gun violence research.
Not only that, the 2,232-page bill itself doesn’t even include the language that Democrats championed. Instead, the wording is tucked inside an explainer accompanying the legislation.
“While appropriations language prohibits the CDC and other agencies from using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control,” it says, “the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.”
Of course, just because there was never an outright ban doesn't mean there hasn't been an effective one.
The prohibition dates back to 1996, when Congress approved what became known as the Dickey Amendment, which barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using federal funding to “advocate or promote gun control.” It was named after former Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., who sponsored the measure. Along with the amendment, lawmakers also completely wiped out the agency’s funding that was originally allotted to conduct gun studies, which amounted to $2.6 million.
Before he died last year, Dickey himself expressed regret about the effect of his original amendment and said he never intended for it to totally halt gun violence research.
"We didn't think about that," he told NPR in 2015. "It turned out that that's what happened, but it wasn't aimed at that. And it wasn't necessary that all research stop. It just couldn't be the collection of data so that they can advocate gun control. That's all we were talking about. But for some reason, it just stopped altogether."
For the last two decades, experts say the measure has had a chilling effect on the agency as officials have feared any gun violence research could be interpreted as advocating or promoting gun control and, as a result, could make their funding vulnerable to cuts.
But while Democrats have touted the language passed this week, experts are shrugging.
“I really don’t read this language as changing very much. It is not saying, ‘Congress encourages firearms research,’” said Morral.
“I think a bigger signal that gun violence research is going to be endorsed would be if Congress puts money behind it, creates a stream of revenue for gun violence research. That would be the real signal — that it’s safe to get back in the water.”
Besides, if this approach was going to work, say experts, it already would have.
That's because former President Barack Obama used similar language in a 2013 presidential memorandum issued in the wake of the 2012 Newtown shooting that directed the CDC to research the causes and prevention of gun violence. It didn’t do the trick.
“We didn’t see any significant uptick in funding,” said Winkler.
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy & Research, believes the language concerning the Dickey Amendment may actually make gun violence research “more restrictive” by limiting its parameters.
“The new language limits spending to only research on the causes of gun violence,” Webster told NBC. “...Funding could not examine solutions, especially any solution that threatens the status quo on gun commerce and ownership.”