Docs Bring NRA Fight to DC, House Democrat Says He'll Take Up Their Cause

Alicia Ault

December 03, 2018

A powerful House Democrat is vowing to promote legislation to provide funding for research on gun violence prevention.

Surrounded by physicians who came to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, last week in support of the #ThisIsOurLane campaign, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said, "we need to fund research on gun violence." Pallone is expected to be named chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over many healthcare issues.  

"Congress must ensure that federal dollars flow to the CDC [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] for firearm injury prevention," said Johns Hopkins University trauma surgeon Joseph Sakran, MD, MPA, MPH,  at the Hill briefing. Sakran is also the founder of the group Docs Demand Action and a board member of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Sakran, director of emergency general surgery at Hopkins, survived a gunshot wound as a teenager and helped create the #ThisIsOurLane campaign.

In a recent editorial in JAMA Surgery, Sakran and Katherine He, MD, a first-year resident at Brigham and Women's Hospital, called on the CDC to create a firearm injury prevention task force that includes physicians, community leaders, and advocacy organizations to set priorities in research and advocacy.

"We Have the Wind in Our Sails"

Bob Doherty, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy at the American College of Physicians (ACP), said he expected Pallone and other House Democrats — who will be in the majority starting in January — to follow through on promises to doctors and voters to take action on gun violence.

"I think you're going to see a lot happen in the House to advance legislation to address injury and deaths from firearms," Doherty told Medscape Medical News.   

Pallone said his panel would make sure the House gives the CDC full authorization to conduct research on prevention of injury and death from firearms.

In theory, the CDC and other federal agencies already have the authority to conduct such research. In March 2018, lawmakers clarified that the Dickey Amendment — which, since 1992, has prohibited the use of federal funds to advocate or promote gun control — was not a blanket prohibition on research.

Even so, the amendment, which is attached to appropriations for federal agencies, has acted as a deterrent. And Republicans have refused to directly earmark appropriations for gun violence prevention studies.

Doherty said it's likely that House Democrats will attempt to pass legislation that formally repeals the Dickey Amendment, and that they will also try to earmark funding in appropriations bills. However, Republicans would have to approve, and President Donald J. Trump would also need to sign such appropriations into law. Those are big — but not insurmountable — hurdles, said Doherty.

Because of the midterm election results across the country that threw out many gun rights candidates and incumbents, and the new Democratic majority, he's more optimistic that the National Rifle Association (NRA) will not achieve one of its biggest legislative priorities.

The NRA has been seeking to have a federal law requiring concealed-carry reciprocity. Such a law would allow someone with a concealed carry permit in one state to be allowed to carry a gun in another state that doesn't allow concealed carry permits.

The Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act passed the House in December 2017, but it was not taken up by the Senate. "I don't see any possibility that a democratically controlled House will take that up," said Doherty.

He also believes that Congress may move forward on some narrowly tailored restrictions, such as barring certain domestic violence offenders from obtaining firearms, and possibly increasing the courts' ability to temporarily remove guns from individuals who are judged to be at extreme risk for harm to themselves or others — so-called red flag laws.

These types of laws are being passed in the states, where physicians can also make a difference, especially now, said Doherty. "We have the wind in our sails," he said, adding that the NRA had helped drive physician activism with its November 7 tweet telling doctors to "stay in their lane."

"I've never seen so many physicians speaking up on one issue organically," he said.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

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