The Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) involvement in gun research has long been controversial in American politics. News of the agency holding a private meeting with gun-control advocates to shape the data it publishes on its website will only worsen that polarization.
Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, first reported by The Reload, provided new insight into the agency’s decision to remove a CDC-commissioned review of studies from its website. That paper noted estimates of defensive gun uses (DGUs) by published scholars range between 60,000 and 2.5 million times per year. And the emails show the decision to scrub it was made after a months-long pressure campaign from a trio of advocates.
The advocates focused their objections on the high-end estimate that retired Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck established in the 1990s. They claimed Kleck’s survey results are misleading, repeating decades-old critiques of the research. However, Mark Bryant of the Gun Violence Archive, one of the advocates in the meeting, also argued it should be removed because its publication made passing gun-control laws harder.
“And while that very small study by Gary Kleck has been debunked repeatedly by everyone from all sides of this issue [even Kleck] it still remains canon by gun rights folks and their supporting politicians and is used as a blunt instrument against gun safety regulations every time there is a state or federal level hearing,” Bryant wrote in an email to CDC officials. “Put simply, in the time that study has been published as ‘a CDC Study’ gun violence prevention policy has ground to a halt, in no small part because of the misinformation that small study provided.”
The emails show that the agency initially stood by its description of DGU estimates–a decision some scholars who study the topic described as “balanced”–until a previously undisclosed meeting took place between the advocates and CDC officials. Following the meeting, though, the CDC decided its webpage would be more “succinct” if it removed the range of estimates and the link to its review of studies on DGUs.
The consequences of the CDC’s private coordination with openly-partisan gun-control advocates for public trust in the institution could be severe. News of the surreptitious meeting and subsequent change risks damaging its reputation among gun owners in a way not seen in decades.
Following the publication of multiple studies in the early 1990s that purported to show a link between gun ownership and an increased risk of being a homicide victim, gun-rights advocates accused the agency of having an anti-gun bias. Public statements at the time from then-director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Dr. Mark Rosenberg, certainly didn’t help the agency shed that reputation.
“We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes,” he told The New York Times in 1994. “It used to be that smoking was a glamour symbol, cool, sexy, macho. Now it is dirty, deadly, and banned.”
Consequently, gun owner skepticism of the CDC grew to new heights, which spurred Congress to act. In 1996, lawmakers attached a provision to an omnibus spending bill–known as the Dickey Amendment–that specified “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The law also reallocated millions in funding initially earmarked for firearms research into studies related to traumatic brain injuries.
While the amendment did not prohibit firearm-related research, only outright advocacy, the CDC responded to its passage by significantly reducing its involvement in studying the topic over the next two decades.
That has changed in recent years, though. The 2018 omnibus spending bill, signed into law by then-President Trump, added clarifying language that stated, “While appropriations language prohibits the CDC and other agencies from using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.” The bill also provided $25 million in funding for research on gun violence to be split between the National Institutes of Health and the CDC.
That a Republican President signed a law providing funding to the once-maligned agency to conduct “gun violence research” seemed to indicate that the politics of the CDC had turned a corner. While still largely distrusted by ardent gun-rights activists, the CDC’s potential to conduct fair-minded research into the root causes of gun violence gained an audience from at least some Republican lawmakers.
The CDC quickly began funding new research initiatives in 2020 and 2021, with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky hoping to go even further.
In an August 2021 interview with CNN, Walensky said that the year’s homicide spike meant it was “pedal to the metal time” for gun violence research. At the same time, she was careful to avoid re-polarizing the issue.
“I’m not here about gun control,” she said. “I’m here about preventing gun violence and gun death.”
She even promised to work closely with gun owners as part of the initiative.
“We cannot understand the research of firearm violence, firearm injury, without embracing wholeheartedly, the firearm owning community,” Walensky said. “I really do believe that the population of people who wants to own a gun doesn’t want people hurt by them. The majority of the population does not want people hurt by them. I want them at the table.”
But now, the goodwill the agency had garnered among Republicans and gun owners may be squandered.
Top Republican lawmakers, who were already critical of the CDC’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, have slammed the agency for this latest transgression.
House GOP Chairwoman Elise Stefanik, the number three ranking Republican for the soon-to-be House majority, accused the CDC of “acting as an arm of the Democratic Party, further politicizing the facts, and shamefully lying to the American people to advance their Far Left agenda” in an email to The Reload.
Senator Bill Cassidy (R.-LA), who will serve as the ranking Republican on the Senate committee that oversees the CDC next Congress, called the agency’s decision to bury its defensive gun use estimates “absolutely unacceptable.”
“Scrubbing government websites of statistics and evidence that are inconvenient to one side’s political narrative is absolutely unacceptable,” he said.
Republican lawmakers have already committed to making oversight and investigation a primary focus of their time in the next Congress, especially in the House of Representatives. The CDC’s private consultation with gun-control advocates will likely be added to the list of grievances House Republicans have with the Government’s public health apparatus next session.
And though Democratic control of the Senate and White House likely means that House Republicans will have reduced leverage over spending priorities, the debate over funding for gun-related initiatives at the CDC could reignite. The era of bipartisan support for funding CDC-led gun research may prove to be short-lived.
Evidence that the CDC allowed gun-control advocates to shape its messaging on defensive gun uses without consulting anyone other outside points of view will almost certainly reopen old wounds for gun-rights advocates. That’s the last thing the beleaguered agency needs right now.