WASHINGTON -- As the victims of the latest mass shooting are mourned and buried, some Americans say it's time to revisit the Dickey Amendment, legislative language that has hampered government-funded research on gun violence prevention for more than two decades.
Drafted and championed by then-U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., the legislative provision states that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control."
When it was first proposed in 1996, it was coupled with a $2.6 million cut in funding for the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the amount the center had spent on firearms studies the previous year, according to Mark Rosenberg, the injury center's director at the time.
The money was eventually restored but designated for the study of traumatic brain injuries.
As a research organization, the injury center works to "study violence and injuries and research the best ways to prevent them, applying science and creating real-world solutions to keep people safe, healthy, and productive," its website states.
Its mission has never included advocacy, Rosenberg said in an interview last week.
The Dickey Amendment, combined with the funding cut, had a chilling effect on federally funded firearms research, Rosenberg said.
Believing -- with good reason -- that their funding was in jeopardy, CDC officials abandoned the study of gun violence prevention, he said.
Since then, the centers have largely steered clear of the research, although they continue to report the number of gun-related fatalities.
"They're afraid that if they start this research, that the Republican-dominated Congress will cut their budget for other things that they desperately need," Rosenberg said.
Republicans in Congress have resisted efforts to repeal the prohibition on advocacy or promotion.
In December, a Democratic lawmaker -- U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois -- introduced legislation "to clarify that the Dickey Amendment does not prevent the use of funds for research on mental health, gun violence, and how they intersect."
The same month, more than 120 lawmakers wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., urging them to support dropping the Dickey provision completely.
The provision also faces opposition from doctors and academics.
In 2016, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the Association of American Universities and dozens of other groups signed a letter urging Congress to drop the Dickey Amendment.
Dickey, who had described himself as a "point man" for the National Rifle Association, was initially glad to see the federally funded research end, viewing it as a victory for the Second Amendment.
But he later regretted the role he played in stifling the research.
By then, he was no longer a member of Congress, and Rosenberg was no longer employed by the CDC.
The two men, who had treated each other with respect despite their differences, eventually became friends.
In 2015, in an op-ed for The Washington Post, they wrote: "Both of us now believe strongly that federal funding for research into gun-violence prevention should be dramatically increased."
Keep the Dickey Amendment in place, they said, but add funding for gun violence prevention research.
"This prohibition can help to reassure supporters of the Second Amendment that the CDC will use the money for important research and not for gun-control advocacy. However, it is also important for all to understand that this wording does not constitute an outright ban on federal gun-violence prevention research," they wrote. "It is critical that the appropriation contain enough money to let science thrive and help us determine what works."
Dickey, who died in April 2017, was troubled by the tens of thousands of gun deaths that occur in the U.S. each year, Rosenberg said.
Guns claimed more than 38,000 lives in 2016, the latest year statistics are available.
"He really came to regret that he had any role to play in stopping the research because he saw what was happening in this country to children, to adults and people in nightclubs, people in schools and concerts. He saw what was happening and he said, 'We've got to stop this and research is the way,'" Rosenberg said.
Betty Dickey, the former Arkansas Supreme Court chief justice, said her ex-husband genuinely wanted to see the research resume.
"He had come to realize that something needed to be done about gun violence," she said.
Betty Dickey, Arkansas' first female prosecuting attorney, said she's not anti-NRA but believes changes to gun laws are necessary.
Assault weapons "should be in the hands of military and law enforcement and not so easily accessible by the mentally imbalanced," she said.
The NRA exerts tremendous sway on Capitol Hill, she said. "You know as well as I do that they have broad influence on the congressmen and senators now," she said.
The organization has endorsed the six members of the all-Republican Arkansas congressional delegation over the years and has made financial contributions to their campaigns.
One, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Dardanelle, has been the beneficiary of $1.97 million in NRA spending, The New York Times reported in November. Most of that was money the organization spent to support his House and Senate bids or to undermine his opponents, the newspaper said. U.S. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock has received $1.09 million in direct or indirect assistance from the NRA, the newspaper said at the time.
After Wednesday's shooting at a Florida high school left 17 people dead, discussion of the Dickey Amendment has been revived.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers Thursday that he doesn't believe the Dickey Amendment prevents the CDC from researching gun violence, portraying it as a legitimate topic for study.
"We're in the science business and the evidence-generating business, and so I will have our agency certainly working in this field, as they do across the broad spectrum of disease control and prevention," he said.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., told C-SPAN's Newsmakers that policies preventing gun violence research should be re-examined.
On Friday, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Jonesboro, took a similar stance.
"Tragically, in Jonesboro we are deeply familiar with the devastating effects of school shootings," he said in a written statement. "School safety and 2nd amendment rights aren't mutually exclusive, there is more that we can do to prevent school shootings without infringing on our constitutional 2nd amendment rights. I think that starts with better enforcement and re-examining the Dickey amendment in order to get good data concerning the role mental health plays in gun violence."
A spokesman for Cotton, Caroline Tabler, questioned the need to re-examine the Dickey Amendment, saying the amendment prohibits advocacy, not research. She noted that the federal government already collects some gun violence data. Examples include the FBI's annual report, Crime in the United States, which offers -- among other things -- state-by-state statistics on the number of murders and the types of firearms that were used.
The spokesman also pointed to a 2013 report that was funded, in part, by the CDC that examined "potential research topics" relating to gun violence. The report was drafted after then-President Barack Obama ordered the CDC to help identify "the most pressing research questions with the greatest potential public health impact." Obama's executive order did not restore the funding to pay for ongoing gun violence research.
Through a spokesman, Hill declined to comment on the provision.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Rogers, said Womack would not be addressing the topic.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Hot Springs, also had no comment, a spokesman said.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Rogers, was unavailable for comment on the amendment Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Spokesmen with the NRA did not respond to requests Friday and Saturday for comment.
Michael John Gray, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said gun violence prevention research shouldn't be divisive.
"We need this information," he said. "This just seems like a logical step that should be embraced by, frankly, people from all sides."
SundayMonday on 02/18/2018
Print Headline: Arkansan ushered in guns-research curbs; Dickey came to regret 1990s push that halted CDC firearms-violence studies