As debate over gun violence and proposed gun control initiatives continues in the wake of the Feb. 14 Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, an add-on to a federal spending bill first passed over 20 years ago has, increasingly, become part of the conversation. The 1996 Dickey amendment effectively prohibits the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from conducting research into gun violence. The controversy the provision sparked at its inception has continued and intensified over the intervening years.
The amendment was championed by the National Rifle Association (NRA). In the early ‘90s, a study released by the “New England Journal of Medicine” found a correlation between gun ownership and homicides committed with the aid of firearms, sparking anxiety among members of the gun lobby, which increased still further when the then-director of a CDC injury prevention program compared the negative consequences of smoking, and the increasing constraints on the tobacco industry, to the consequences of gun violence, and suggested that increasing restrictions on firearms might be appropriate.
In response to these events, the NRA lobbied to limit the types of research federally-funded institutions could perform; the organization’s efforts were successful, if costly – former Arkansas representative Jay Dickey, the author of the Dickey amendment, disclosed over $50,000 in contributions from the NRA for the 1999-2000 cycle.
Passed as a rider to the yearly omnibus spending bill of 1996, H.R. 3610, the language of the amendment forbids gun control advocacy on the part of federally-funded research institutes, but not research on gun violence.
The law, however, is applied in such a way that the amount of money an institute spends on gun violence research is then taken from the institute’s budget. Dispute over the provision’s consequences has proven to be an incendiary topic.
The amendment has been met with overwhelming condemnation by the scientific and medical communities. Dozens of medical organizations wrote to Congress in April of 2016 in order to petition for the removal of the language of the Dickey amendment from H.R. 3610.
According to the letter to Congress, the petitioning organizations cited the provision’s “chilling effect” on research into gun violence, which they termed a “serious public health epidemic.”
The Feb. 14 school shooting has brought the amendment back into the national spotlight. Senator Martin Heinrich from New Mexico called on Congress to repeal the provision. Attempts to alter the amendment’s language, without repealing it, have been made as recently as 2017; last year, Illinois congresswoman Robin Kelly introduced H.R. 4573, a bill to clarify that the Dickey amendment does not prohibit federal research into relationship between mental illness and gun violence. The bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Health; it has not yet been voted on.
There is no justifiable reason for the existence of the Dickey amendment. Common-sense gun control legislation has become a progressively more significant aspect of popular political conversation. Gun control is a hotly contested topic, but the Dickey amendment shouldn’t be.
Jay Dickey has made his regrets public, claiming that the law’s stifling of gun violence research was not his intent. The only possible result of the Dickey amendment is greater confusion, and, ultimately, greater suffering. It’s clear that more research, and better data, on the nature and causes of gun violence is essential to solving a decades-long, escalating public health and safety crisis.