WASHINGTON -- In the wake of a school shooting in Oregon this fall, it briefly appeared that Congress was willing to reconsider its two-decade ban on the use of taxpayer dollars to research the health impact of gun violence.
There was nothing particularly different about the moment, sad as that may be. The death toll was high, with nine people murdered at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. But school shootings have happened with regularity for years. And even in the wake of worse instances of gun violence, there were no serious efforts to undo the ban that prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting gun-related research.
What was different this fall was that gun control advocates prioritized reversing the research ban (perhaps recognizing that their other objectives were futile). Moreover, presidential candidates as ideologically asymmetrical as Hillary Clinton and Ben Carson said it was time to reconsider it. But perhaps most symbolically, the original author of the ban, former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), called on lawmakers to undo it.
“I have regrets,” he told The Huffington Post in October.
Alas, others didn’t.
On 1 a.m. on Wednesday, congressional leaders unveiled the text of a year-end spending bill that will fund the government through 2017. And on page 936 of the document is the very language that Dickey helped craft in 1996 that has remained law ever since: “None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.”
Reached by phone, Dickey said he wasn’t surprised by that provision. Gun policy, after all, is so emotional as to be effectively untouchable, even for something as mundane as research.
“I don’t think you can remove [that language] because of the politics,” Dickey said. “I just don’t think it is going to happen. And there is no reason to go and do something that would be futile.”
Dickey says he never imagined his amendment’s impact would drift this far. Back in 1996, he introduced legislation stripping the $2.6 million that the CDC spent on studying firearms the prior year and appropriated it for other items. Attached to it was the very language that remains intact in the spending bill unveiled Wednesday morning.
The goal, as Dickey put it then, was to stop the agency from using money to “raise emotional sympathy” around gun violence, not put a full clamp on gun-specific research. But the CDC was spooked and interpreted the language as a full prohibition.
In the years that followed, congressional Republicans resisted efforts to roll back the amendment. Occasionally, they expanded it. In 2011, lawmakers applied the Dickey language to research by the National Institutes of Health. “A gun is not a disease,” the-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said four years later, explaining the policy.
Through it all, gun control advocates argued that there is an etymological loophole: If agencies interpreted the amendment literally, they’d only be prohibited from using money for advocacy, not for research. And following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, President Barack Obama instructed agencies to do just that.
The NIH followed his lead. The CDC has not.
Dickey said he would like the CDC to go forward with research even with his amendment in place, partly because he doesn’t foresee a day when conservatives will allow the amendment to be undone.
“The harm to our society is getting so great and so predictable that we have got to try something,” he said. “And trying to fund the science at whatever level would be a step forward.”
But even if the CDC interpreted the Dickey amendment literally, the amount of money it could use for gun-related research would be severely limited unless Congress decides to write the agency a bigger check.
“The issue is too serious not to consider it,” Dickey said. “We must consider it. And if we go and spend 8-10 years on the research and it doesn’t produce anything, then that is something we can put aside. It will be like that old story of Thomas Edison, who said ‘Today is a great day. We now have 855 ways to light that don’t work.’”
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