"We ought to research the whole environment, both sides — what the benefits of having guns are and what are the benefits of not having guns," Dickey said. "We should study any part of this problem," including whether armed guards at schools would help, as the National Rifle Association has suggested.
Association officials did not respond to requests for comment. A statement Wednesday said the group "has led efforts to promote safety and responsible gun ownership" and that "attacking firearms" is not the answer. It said nothing about research.
The 1996 law "had a chilling effect. It basically brought the field of firearm-related research to a screeching halt," said Benjamin of the Public Health Association.
Webster said researchers like him had to "partition" themselves so whatever small money they received from the CDC was not used for anything that could be construed as gun policy. One example was a grant he received to evaluate a community-based program to reduce street gun violence in Baltimore, modeled after a successful program in Chicago called CeaseFire. He had to make sure the work included nothing that could be interpreted as gun control research, even though other privately funded research might.
Private funds from foundations have come nowhere near to filling the gap from lack of federal funding, Hargarten said. He and more than 100 other doctors and scientists recently sent Vice President Joe Biden a letter urging more research, saying the lack of it was compounding "the tragedy of gun violence."
Since 1973, the government has awarded 89 grants to study rabies, of which there were 65 cases; 212 grants for cholera, with 400 cases, yet only three grants for firearm injuries that topped 3 million, they wrote. The CDC spends just about $100,000 a year out of its multibillion-dollar budget on firearm-related research, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said.
"It's so out of proportion to the burden, however you measure it," said Dr. Matthew Miller, associate professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. As a result, "we don't know really simple things," such as whether tighter gun rules in New York will curb gun trafficking "or is some other pipeline going to open up" in another state, he said.
CDC officials refused to discuss the topic on the record — a possible sign of how gun shy of the issue the agency has been even after the president's order.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement that her agency is "committed to re-engaging gun violence research."
Others are more cautious. The Union of Concerned Scientists said the White House's view that the law does not ban gun research is helpful, but not enough to clarify the situation for scientists, and that congressional action is needed.
Dickey, the former congressman, agreed.
"Congress is supposed to do that. He's not supposed to do that," Dickey said of Obama's order. "The restrictions were placed there by Congress.
"What I was hoping for ... is 'let's do this together,'" Dickey said.
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