Language tucked into a government spending bill in Congress may end the de facto 22-year-old ban on gun research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The bill released by lawmakers on Wednesday included funding for school safety and strengthening background checks for guns. But maybe most significantly, it also clarifies the “Dickey Amendment” by saying the CDC is allowed to study the causes and effects of gun violence.
Named after its author, former Rep. Jay Dickey, the amendment barred the CDC from doing research to “advocate or promote gun control.” Passed in 1996, it also stripped the CDC of the $2.6 million in funding it had set aside that year for gun-violence research. After the funding cut and warning, the CDC interpreted the amendment as a practical ban on studying gun violence.
The Dickey Amendment “represented a shot across the bow. If you want to do research in this area, it can make your life miserable,” said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, a CDC veteran who founded the agency’s Center for Injury Prevention and Control during the Clinton administration.
“The Dickey Amendment essentially prevented research from the top-down on one of the most important public health issues,” said Stanford University’s Sarabeth Spitzer, co-author of a study last year that found gun injuries cost over $6 billion in hospital and doctor visits from 2006 to 2014.
“If you look at research on some of the top killers of the United States population, firearms have lagged behind," said Spitzer.
The NRA lobbied heavily for the amendment, and its author, Rep. Jay Dickey even called himself the organization’s “point man.” The NRA told members that research on the gun epidemic would lead to “you losing all your guns,” according to Rosenberg.
In 2015, after the San Bernardino massacre that killed 14 people, Dickey said he regretted that his namesake law slowed research of the gun violence epidemic. “Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution,” he wrote in a letter to Congress.
Rosenberg, who once viewed Dickey as his “archenemy” said the two became friends (Dickey died in April 2017). Rosenberg added that he believes Congress should provide funding to the CDC for gun violence research and that by altering the amendment, but not repealing it, lawmakers gives more ease to gun-rights advocates.
“It gives cover to Republicans who want to research to go on,” added Rosenberg. The omnibus’s language “is saying Congress realizes the important contribution science has in solving this problem,” said Dr. Rosenberg.
But the omnibus spending bill did not explicitly give the CDC more money to study guns, and some gun policy and public health experts say funding is the key to unlocking the hold on government-backed gun research.
“The change that I’ve seen in the bill’s language is not a very big change. It doesn’t say that Congress supports more gun violence research. What’s really needed is some funding.” said Andrew Morral, a senior behavioral scientist and lead researcher behind RAND’s Gun Policy initiative.
After the Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama issued an executive order calling on health agencies to research gun violence. The former president also asked for $10 million of the yearly budget to go to the CDC for research, but Congress blocked the funding, effectively keeping the ban intact, according to the Washington Post.
In 2015, there were less than 20 researchers dedicated to studying gun-violence in the United States, The Daily Beast previously reported.
Before the gun violence epidemic can be solved, it has to be studied, according to Rosenberg.
“It’s the science that’s going to get us out of this deadly mess,” he said.