HHS Secretary Alex Azar says he's open to allowing CDC to research gun violence

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The American Medical Association—which was called gun violence a public health crisis—said it backs HHS Secretary Alex Azar's commitment to the CDC researching gun violence. (CDC.gov)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long been limited on the research it can conduct into gun violence, but HHS Secretary Alex Azar indicated Thursday that he would be willing to expand the agency's capabilities.

Azar appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday at a hearing on oversight at the Department of Health and Human Services. When asked by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., to back more research into gun violence, Azar was willing to commit. 

He said that a budget rider that hinders the CDC's ability to study gun violence doesn't actually apply to conducting research itself, it only applies to advocacy on the issue. 

"We believe we've got a very important mission with our work with serious mental illness as well as our ability to do research on the causes of violence and causes behind tragedies like this," Azar said, in reference to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday that left 17 dead. 

Castor noted that 96 people die each day from gun violence, including suicide and domestic violence-related homicide. She said that the shooting in Florida was the 18th school shooting in the U.S. so far this year. 

RELATED: HHS Secretary Alex Azar goes before House panel to defend health program cuts in Trump's proposed FY19 budget 

The American Medical Association—which has called gun violence a public health crisis—said it backs Azar's commitment to the CDC researching gun violence. Solutions to reduce gun violence can't be developed until "we have a deeper understanding of the underlying causes" of the issue, the AMA's President, David Barbe, M.D., said in a statement

"Gun violence today is a public health crisis in the United States; it knows no geographic, political or social bounds," Barbe said. 

Barbe also published a blog post on the issue following the shooting in Florida, saying that action on the issue is "long overdue." Gun violence, he said, poses significant challenges to physicians who must treat patients with complicated injuries or grapple with the response to a mass casualty incident. 

RELATED: Disaster planning lessons from Sunrise Hospital's response to the Las Vegas shooting 

Active shooter situations have also forced emergency physicians to rethink their approaches, according to an article from MedPage Today. One potential solution is providing civilians with more knowledge on CPR and ways to prevent blood loss, so that patients might arrive at a hospital in a more stabilized condition. 

"It is important for communities to consider how to enable bystanders to safely assist victims with life-threatening bleeding, in much the same way we enable them to assist cardiac victims needing CPR," Alexander Isakov, M.D., a professor of emergency medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, told MedPage. 

Azar referenced HHS' work on mental health when discussing gun violence with Castor, but mental health experts warn against tying violent incidents directly to mental health, according to an article from Politico. President Donald Trump also called the Parkland shooter "mentally disturbed" in a tweet Thursday. 

Ron Honberg, senior policy adviser at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told Politico that some mental illnesses can cause violent behavior, but there are many other factors at play as well. 

"It feels like mental illness is being used as a political football to deflect attention from some other important issues, like whether we need sensible gun control laws in this country," he said. 

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