The controversy over a two-decade-old prohibition on gun violence research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) resurfaced on Thursday when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced that Democrats will insist on the removal of the rider as part of the $1.1 trillion omnibus bill required to fund the government. Failure to pass the package will trigger a government shutdown, and Pelosi’s move may complicate negotiations for Republican leaders, who have consistently deflected efforts to allow the CDC to resume funding studies of the subject. In June of this year, during the last such push on Capitol Hill, then-Speaker of the House John Boehner flatly stated, “I’m sorry, but a gun is not a disease.”
The effective ban can be traced back to the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which famously barred the CDC from involvement in any research that could be interpreted as advocating tougher gun laws. Jay Dickey, a Republican Congressman from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, slipped the rider into a spending bill as a junior member of the House Appropriations Committee. Congress slashed $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget after the amendment went into effect — the exact amount that the organization had dedicated to studying gun violence the year before. The swift one-two punch has come to define the organization’s current research climate, in which studies on guns and public health are virtually non-existent.
Opponents of the research ban argue that it hugely complicates the task of reducing gun deaths and injuries. “In terms of resources and the burden to the U.S. public, there are order and orders of magnitude between gun violence and various infectious diseases,” Dr. Charles Branas, a gun violence researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, tells The Trace. “So why aren’t we investing in this, and why aren’t we making this a very important topic of study?”
Democrats and public health experts aren’t the only ones calling for an end to the ban. In recent years, Dickey himself has actively spoken out against his own amendment. One day before the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Dickey published a sober letter to Congress. “Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners,” he writes. “Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution.”
In a conversation with The Trace, Dickey discussed how his reading of the Second Amendment motivated his legislation, the importance of science in addressing the gun problem, and his growing regrets over the research funding freeze.
Your amendment established the CDC ban on gun violence research. You’ve since had a change of heart. Why?
I just regret it. I don’t know if it was a change of heart, I just regret that we didn’t maintain the commitment to funding science and research. In fact, I don’t think I ever intended it to be a prohibition against spending money like that. It just shouldn’t be spent for political purposes.
If you didn’t intend it to prohibit federal gun violence research, what did you hope the result would be?
That the politicalization of the research stop. Because we were spending money, not for health purposes, but for political agenda purposes. But I would have added to the amendment, if I had the control. I was just a junior member of the [appropriations] committee, and I didn’t know what wording went into the amendment before it passed. I would have added to it and made it a requirement that there be scientific research. That it should continue until a solution is reached. And at no time is the solution to even get close to infringing on the rights of gun owners.
How did gun rights come to be major priority for you?
The more I read about the Second Amendment and the more I read about why it was there, I just finally figured it was important. Then when I saw the opposition on the other side, it just kind of took it to another level.
On the research issue, the side that wanted to stop gun control felt like they were fighting for the Second Amendment. That was a constitutional amendment, and that connected them with the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That’s a pretty strong motivation.
What do you think would have happened if the CDC’s research had continued?
We could have been spending a little bit of money for a long period of time and we would have a solution. The highway industry, it solved their problem with the use of science and didn’t eliminate the car. If someone asked me, “What do you think the solution would be to eliminate head-on collisions?,” I never would have thought that a little guardrail would be enough force to stop a car. But science won out. There’s no telling what science will do. If a consistent, continual effort is made, we’ll find a solution.
Do you have any idea of what that solution might be?
That’s what I can’t figure out. I don’t think I can predict it right now. But we can’t get to a solution by doing nothing. We need to do something.
You recently sent a letter to Congress, calling for renewed federal funding for research on gun violence. Given the intensity of the debate around guns, do you think you would have sent the letter if you were facing re-election?
No. People are used to the NRA [National Rifle Association] on one side and the gun control people on the other. And they’re accustomed to speaking in those terms. They’re unaccustomed to doing things in a joint fashion. And so, when you delve into that environment, you get these knee-jerk reactions. And you have to overcome the knee-jerk.
Do you think that’ll ever happen, where the two sides will find a way to compromise and collaborate?
Well, Mark Rosenberg and I have it. He was the was head of the CDC department that was supposed to be spending the money at the time. [Rosenberg is now CEO of the Taskforce for Global Health.] We were the point men for each side when the issue came up in Congress. I mean, I was told to watch out for him. And I think he was told to watch out for me. So we were on opposite sides. But later I got to know him, and we found a middle ground.
And how did you guys reach that understanding?
He showed up in the office to say hello once. We started talking and then we got to our families and we started connecting. And I don’t think I’ve convinced him, and I don’t think he’s convinced me, but we are miles further along than we were.
Have you gotten any feedback from other Republicans about your letter?
Zero. I didn’t expect anything. I just did that because my conscience wasn’t doing well. I had to do something, even if no one else did.
How much blame do you think sitting Congress members hold for the state of gun research in the U.S.?
I can’t attribute any guilt to them right now. I’m just saying, something could have been done. And I could have done it. I could have put the language in the amendment that did more to encourage the science. But when you have those kinds of fights, there’s kind of an anticlimax. It was a big battle to get the amendment passed, and after it was over, I kind of just said, “I don’t want to hear about that for a while.” And so I stopped.
[Photo: AP Photo/Spencer Tirey]