Former GOP Congressman Who Triggered 20-Year Ban on Gun Control Research Has Some Regrets
The too-little-too-late redemption tour of one Jay Dickey continued today—of all days—on Capitol Hill, with a letter released by the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. This will be a handy reminder that regret—truly a weighty motherfucker for the sufferer—has a realtime value of roughly jack-shit in the world outside your tormented soul.
In this letter, Mr. Dickey, a former GOP congressman from Arkansas, reiterates a regret he’s carried into his later years: in 1996, working on behalf of the NRA, Dickey banned the Centers for Disease Control from researching gun violence, a ban that effectively persists to this day.
Before we get to the letter, let’s do some history: back in the early 90’s, the CDC funded some gun control research, looking at gun ownership as a homicide risk factor. The study—creatively titled “Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home”—was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993, and “found that keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide. Virtually all of this risk involved homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.”
According to the American Psychological Association, the NRA responded to this study and its media attention “by campaigning for the elimination of the center that had funded the study, the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention.” When that effort failed to gain traction, Dickey, then in his second term in the House of Representatives, “succeeded in pushing through an amendment” to the 1996 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill that reportedly “stripped $2.6 million from the disease control centers’ budget, the very amount it had spent on firearms-related research the year before.”
So, this defunded gun control research by the CDC, but Dickey wasn’t done: language was put into the bill that effectively halted CDC gun control research of any kind. One stupid line, totally partisan, bought and paid-for by the NRA:
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.
Partisan, because it is a tacit acknowledgment that research into gun control will inevitably demonstrate that guns lead to violence. That is, after all, their very reason for existing. If that should persuade people that guns ought to be, you know, controlled, that is something the NRA cannot allow.
Here’s what the APA had to say about Dickey’s amendment at the time:
Research on the prevention of firearm-related injury, supported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and coordinated within CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), has come under attack from Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) and the National Rifle Association (NRA). The House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee initially rejected Rep. Dickey’s attempt to eliminate the $2.6 million dedicated to CDC firearm-injury research. However, Mr. Dickey prevailed in the full Appropriations Committee. The Dickey amendment would transfer the $2.6 million to regional health education centers. This research has attracted a powerful and wealthy opponent — the NRA. The NRA has taken the position that firearm-related injury research at the CDC amounts to ‘antigun’ political advocacy and has also attacked the quality of this research. However, research proposals submitted to CDC are subject to a peer review process that follows standard practices. APA’s Public Policy Office (PPO) has distributed accurate information to Congress on the nature of CDC-supported firearm-injury research and is advocating against the Dickey amendment.
The effect of this de facto ban was, as intended, a virtual shutdown of CDC gun control research. By 2013, research found that “since 1996 the CDC’s funding for firearm injury prevention has fallen 96 percent and is now just $100,000 of the agency’s $5.6 billion budget.” Todd Zwilich of Public Radio International’s The Takeaway found that the CDC abandoned gun control research out of fear that doing any at all could subject them to funding punishments:
“There is other research that goes on at the CDC that does have to do with guns,” says Zwillich. “There is a National Violent Death Reporting System, which does record the causes of all violent deaths, including in domestic abuse, youth violence, and child abuse. If a gun is the cause, that’s recorded — it’s not like they ignore it entirely. But gun deaths and gun injuries as a public health issue, as Rivara said, are still basically anathema to CDC researchers and anyone who gets CDC funding, which is potentially millions of dollars.
“Researchers are concerned that if they report the results of their data publicly and say, for instance, as Fred Rivara found in the ‘90s, that having a gun in the home makes you more likely to be injured than if you don’t have a gun in a home, then they’ll be accused by Congress of breaking the rules and advocating for gun control.”
That’s just part of the legacy of Dickey’s amendment: in 2011, Congress put language into the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 that extended the CDC ban even to the National Institutes of Health:
None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.
In 2013, then-House Speaker John Boehner was still strenuously—if also appallingly stupidly—defending the ban:
“The CDC is there to look at diseases that need to be dealt with to protect public health,” Boehner said at a press conference last week. “I’m sorry, but a gun is not a disease. Guns don’t kill people — people do. And when people use weapons in a horrible way, we should condemn the actions of the individual and not blame the action on some weapon.”
Just this year the House Appropriations Committee rejected an amendment that would have reversed the CDC research ban, according to The Trace. This is closer to the full legacy of Dickey’s amendment: it let the NRA’s fanaticism grow stronger roots in federal law and gave the boot to research, knowledge, reason, understanding, and logic.
Oh, right, the letter. Dickey’s regret. Does it matter? No. This is a fight that has already been lost, and Dickey’s amendment was a huge blow for the victors. Dickey once co-authored a letter published in the Washington Post in 2012, effectively reversing his position, accomplishing nothing. He expressed regret to Huffington Post last month. Now another letter. He let the wolf in the barn 20 years ago—hard to imagine what will be accomplished by throwing paper at it today.
But, hey, the man wrote the thing, and since we’re already here:
Many years ago the highway industry took on studying from a scientific viewpoint how head on collisions could be reduced. They didn’t include in their scope of study the elimination of the automobile, which would have been a simple solution, but what came out of this were three or four foot barricades that are placed in between lanes of traffic in our interstate highway system. We have all seen these fences, but what isn’t generally known is how overwhelmingly successful this project has become.
Back in 1998, I took part in cutting off gun violence research dollars at the federal level because of what was considered a misapplication of the dollars by the CDC. I have recently expressed my regrets that we didn’t continue that research with the provision that nothing shall be done in this project to infringe the rights of gun ownership as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution in the Second Amendment.
Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners, in the same fashion that the highway industry continued its research without eliminating the automobile.
There is no ready answer to the question “How are we going to accomplish the desired result of reducing gun violence under these circumstances?” For sure the same dilemma faced the scientists in the highway industry some years ago. The highway industry answered the question of how to reduce traffic fatalities through scientific research. In the same way, scientific research should help answer how we can best reduce gun violence.
Even though my opinion and the opinion of my colleague, Dr. Mark Rosenberg, have been spread to media outlets all over our country, there has been only one member of Congress who has expressed any support for this endeavor. I can tell that member that though there is no groundswell of agreement, at least I have not been tarred and feathered and run out of town…yet.
To sum this up, it is my position that somehow or someway we should slowly but methodically fund such research until a solution is reached. Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution.
Member of Congress, 1993-2000
We’ve had more mass shootings in 2015 than days. There’ve been at least 12,208 gun deaths in America this year. In 2015, Americans—prominent Americans, even elected officials—get away with saying things like “guns don’t kill people, people do” and asserting that the solution to all these shootings is more guns. Regret just wouldn’t be regret if a person could change the past.
[The Hill] [Huffington Post] [APA] [PRI] [New York Times] [The Trace]