I have mentioned elsewhere that the CDC was forbidden to conduct research on gun violence as a public health crisis. It is not quite that, but in the ’90s there was legislation (the 1996 Dickey Amendment) prohibiting CDC from promoting gun control, thus Congress defunded gun violence research by CDC, which the legislation did NOT require. In other words, the gun lobby got Congress to abuse that legislation as an excuse for defunding research on gun violence as a public health matter. This is changing lately, but in relatively meager amounts of funding (it has been called “a drop in the bucket” by public health people). In 2012, Congressman Jay Woodson Dickey, Jr. said that he regretted the outcome of his amendment in blocking CDC funding of gun violence research.
How do you define gun control promotion? Research showing that lack of gun control is a public health threat? Does that count as promoting gun control? To a member of the Autocracy Party? Whatever Dickey’s conscience may have attained, to a member of today’s Autocracy Party, of course anything showing that guns are a public health threat is deemed gun control promotion. No wonder a leading Autocracy Party senator was vociferously booed by his own people the other day when he promoted meager new (and useless) measures of gun control in the wake of the Uvalde school shootings. If you try to do anything to improve gun safety, you are anti-gun-owner, in the minds of the power-addicted party faithful. That’s not just political power they are addicted to. It’s their adolescent sensation of phallic power in firing a gun, along with loud exhaust pipes and burning rubber. “Look at me, I’m powerful.” Bang bang dipshit.
ORIGINS OF THE DICKEY AMENDMENT
The Dickey Amendment arose in response to efforts made in the early 1990s to begin treating gun violence as a public health issue. In 1992, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) converted its violence prevention division into a center that would lead federal efforts to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from violence. Soon, studies funded by the center began to draw attention to the gun issue. In particular, a 1993 study by Arthur Kellermann and his colleagues revealed an increased risk of homicide associated with presence of a firearm in a home. The Kellermann study and other similar investigations struck a nerve and began to receive widespread attention in newspapers and other media.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) accused the CDC of being biased against guns and began lobbying for the elimination of the injury prevention center. Although the center survived, the NRA persuaded its allies in Congress to take action. Led by Representative Jay Dickey of Arkansas, they added a provision to a 1996 spending bill declaring that “[n]one of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.” Congress also stipulated that $2.6 million of the CDC’s budget, which was the amount spent on firearm injury research during the previous year, would be specifically earmarked for research on traumatic brain injuries.
IMPACT OF THE AMENDMENT
The Dickey Amendment became an annual tradition, with Congress including it every year in the appropriations legislation that funds the CDC. The restriction’s meaning was debatable. The provision prohibits using funds to advocate or promote gun control, so it could be reasonably interpreted as placing no limit on research about gun violence and its causes, as long as the funded studies stopped short of calling for the enactment of specific legislative proposals that would restrict access to firearms. CDC grant guidelines characterized the restriction that way, warning that “CDC’s funds may not be spent on political action or other activities designed to affect the passage of specific Federal, State, or local legislation intended to restrict or control the purchase or use of firearms.”
No opportunity for a more definitive determination of the restriction’s meaning, such as through interpretation by a court in litigation, ever arose. Although the actual scope of the prohibition was debatable, its effect was not. CDC officials understood that the Dickey Amendment was “a shot fired across the bow” (https://wapo.st/2HGow7p ). The NRA and its supporters in Congress had made clear that the CDC had to avoid any studies that could be perceived as anti-gun efforts. CDC funding for research relating to firearms became almost nonexistent. As noted by Kellermann and Rivara, “Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out.”
The Dickey Amendment was eventually extended in 2011 to cover the National Institutes of Health as well as the CDC. The National Institutes of Health apparently drew the NRA’s ire by funding research, published in AJPH, on the association between gun possession and assaults.
Criticism of the Dickey Amendment continued to build, with even former representative Dickey having a change of heart and declaring support for research on how to reduce firearm injuries and deaths. After the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, President Barack Obama directed the CDC not to regard the Dickey Amendment as a complete bar to funding research on gun violence. The CDC nevertheless remained reticent. President Obama urged Congress to allocate funding to the CDC for work on gun violence prevention, but Congress denied the request.
A NEW CONCESSION FROM CONGRESS
In March 2018, Congress passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill just in time to avoid a federal government shutdown. Although the massive bill was publicly unveiled only one day before Congress voted on it, the legislation was the product of weeks of negotiations and compromises by the leadership of both parties. The discussions occurred at a time of heightened national focus on gun violence, after 17 people died in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the young survivors of that shooting started a campaign of protests and activism.
The federal spending bill included a compromise on gun violence research. Although Democratic leaders wanted to eliminate the Dickey Amendment altogether, the provision prohibiting the use of federal funds to advocate or promote gun control was once again included in the appropriations legislation. However, a report accompanying the spending legislation sought to clarify and soften the prohibition’s impact: “[w]hile appropriations language prohibits the CDC and other agencies from using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence” (https://bit.ly/2GR4B2u).
FUTURE OF FEDERAL GUN VIOLENCE RESEARCH FUNDING
Although the 2018 legislative package makes clear that federal funding can support research on gun violence, it leaves unanswered questions about when such research would cross the line into promotion and advocacy of gun control. Many Democrats nevertheless touted the compromise as a major victory for gun control efforts, whereas Republican leaders insisted that it changed nothing because the Dickey Amendment was never intended to be a blanket prohibition of funding for research on gun violence.
Public health experts observed that what really matters in the end is the amount of money available. After all of the political wrangling and partisan rhetoric have run their course, the compromise struck in the new spending bill will not really make much of a difference unless funding is actually available for gun violence research. Congress has made clear that the Dickey Amendment does not bar all federal support for research on gun issues, and Congress should now follow up by specifically appropriating funds for high-quality research that will inform efforts to reduce firearm deaths and injuries.
Before becoming a law professor, Allen Rostron worked as a senior staff attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The views expressed in this article are strictly his own and do not represent the positions of any other person or entity.