House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was quick to caution against “knee-jerk” policy decisions less than 24 hours after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 people dead.
Ryan suggested waiting on “the facts” when asked Thursday morning whether the shooting should prompt a debate on gun control.
“It’s just a horrific, horrific, horrible, horrible shooting. I mean, I think we need to pray,” he said during an interview with Indiana radio station WIBC. “Our hearts go out to these victims. I think as public policy makers, we don’t just knee-jerk before we even have all of the facts and the data.”
But collecting such data is difficult in the U.S. thanks to a 1996 law that restricts federal funding for research on gun violence.
Known as the Dickey Amendment, after former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), the law states that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
The language effectively ended federal research on gun violence. The CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention funds research on a wide array of topics, including motor vehicle safety, domestic violence, and falls by elderly Americans.
Dickey himself later countered lawmakers’ belief that the CDC is forbidden from adding gun violence to its list of research interests. In a 2016 open letter, the former congressman wrote that “funding for research into gun-violence prevention should be dramatically increased” and said he does not consider “the congressional language against using federal funds ‘to promote or advocate gun control’ as a barrier to this research.”
However, the amendment continues to serve as exactly that ― a barrier.
“I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time,” Dickey told HuffPost in 2015. “I have regrets.”
Whether lawmakers will take any action on gun control after Florida’s tragedy remains unclear. Ryan pointed to legislation on background checks introduced after a deadly shooting at a Texas church in November as evidence that the Republican-controlled House has not ignored gun violence entirely.
“It’s not as if nothing has been done to enforce the laws we have on the books and make sure that people ― bad people ― who aren’t supposed to have guns don’t get rights,” he said Thursday. “But I don’t think that means you then roll that conversation into taking away citizens’ rights ― taking away a law-abiding citizens’ rights. Obviously this conversation typically goes there. Right now, I think we need to take a breath and collect the facts.”
During his weekly press conference Thursday, Ryan again urged the public to “step back and count our blessings.”
“We need to think less about taking sides, fighting each other politically, and just pulling together,” he said.
Ryan once again touted a comprehensive mental health bill that was included in an even larger bill ― the 21st Century Cures Act ― and said lawmakers needed more time to figure out if there were additional steps they needed to take in the implementation of that law.
Ryan said officials needed more time to investigate the shooting in Florida. Still, there is more the government can do right now in order to look into the cause and effects of gun violence more broadly.
Allowing the CDC to study gun violence is one obvious step. Holding hearings in Congress about background checks or other gun control measures would be another. Democrats on Thursday also suggested forming a special committee on gun violence.
When asked about forming a special committee, Ryan said Congress was already doing its job.
“Look, we passed mental health legislation two years ago because of the underlying mental health problems that were behind these shootings,” Ryan said.
Matt Fuller contributed to this report.