In 1996, then-Representative Jay Dickey (R-AR) spearheaded a piece of legislation that banned federal funding for gun violence research. Two decades later, the retired congressman now says he’s sorry for his role in the devastating legislation, admitting this week in a Huffington Post interview, “I have regrets.”
Dickey, who once described himself as the “NRA’s point person in Congress”, conceded in the interview that his move to ban the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying the impact of firearm ownership on public health was a big mistake and that we are paying for it now as a country.
“I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time,” Dickey admitted. “If we had somehow gotten the research going, we could have somehow found a solution to the gun violence without there being any restrictions on the Second Amendment. We could have used that all these years to develop the equivalent of that little small fence.”
The fight over federal funding for gun violence research can be traced back to 1993, when Dr. Arthur Kellerman and colleagues published the results of a CDC-funded study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). The study, “Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home,” found that keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide. Rather than confer protection, the study concluded that people who keep guns in the home faced a 2.7-fold greater risk of homicide and a 4.8-fold greater risk of suicide.
The NEJM article received considerable media attention, and the National Rifle Association (NRA) responded with an attempt to shut down the entire center that had funded the study, the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention. The center itself survived, but in 1996, Dickey — at the behest of the NRA — authored an amendment that slashed $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget — the exact amount the CDC had invested in firearm injury research the previous year.
Passed by a Republican-dominated Congress, the NRA-backed ‘Dickey amendment’ explicitly stated that, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” This deliberately vague wording, coupled with a campaign of harassment of researchers, had a chilling effect on scientific progress, effectively ending any and all federal research related to gun violence. As Dr. Mark Rosenberg, former director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, put it: “The scientific community has been terrorized by the NRA.”
Over the last two decades, Republicans have exploited the Dickey amendment to argue their case that gun violence is not a public health issue — a view that stands in stark contrast to the position of professional medical and public health organizations, at least 52 of which have independently urged lawmakers to treat gun violence as a pressing public health epidemic. Nevertheless, as the Huffington Post reported, congressional Republicans extended the Dickey amendment to apply to the National Institutes of Health in 2011, after Dr. Douglas Wiebe, an epidemiologist at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, authored a 2009 NIH study that confirmed a significant association between gun possession and gun assault. Most recently, in the wake of the Charleston church shooting this summer, the GOP-controlled Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives rejected an amendment that would have lifted the federal funding ban. House Speaker John Boehner defended the lack of government research by saying “a gun is not a disease.”
In a complete reversal, Dickey now finds himself at odds with current congressional Republican, who he says are over-interpreting his amendment. “As a consequence, U.S. scientists cannot answer the most basic question: What works to prevent firearm injuries?,” Dickey, along with the CDC’s Dr. Rosenberg, wrote in the Washington Post.
“What we do know,” they continued, “is that firearm injuries will continue to claim far too many lives at home, at school, at work and at the movies until we start asking and answering the hard questions.”
It’s easy to see why the NRA fears asking such questions. Despite the dearth of federally-funded studies on gun violence, researchers have continued to study the problem using private funds. Some, like Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California-Davis, have even used their own money to fund the research. And for the NRA, this growing body of evidence has dealt a devastating blow to their arguments against gun control.
We now know, for example, that defensive gun-use is rare enough to be considered a statistical anomaly. According to a June 2015 report, for every justifiable homicide involving a gun, 32 criminal firearm homicides were carried out; when the analysis takes into account the tens of thousands of annual gun-related suicides and unintentional shootings, that ratio shifts to about one justifiable firearm homicide for every 100-120 criminal homicides, suicides, or accidental deaths at the hands of a gun.
We also have extensive evidence linking stronger gun laws to less violent crime: In a recent study from Johns Hopkins University, researchers showed that the implementation of a law requiring people to apply for a permit before buying a handgun helped Connecticut reduce its firearm-related homicide rate by 40 percent. And previous research has documented that states with more expansive background check laws experience 48 percent less gun trafficking, 38 percent fewer deaths of women shot by intimate partners, and 17 percent fewer firearms involved in aggravated assaults.
Undermining the NRA’s claim that more guns lead to less crime, other recent research has shown that making it easier to obtain a gun actually leads to higher violent crime rates. The 2007 repeal of Missouri’s background check requirement, for example, led to a 25 percent increase in firearm homicide rates, according to a 2014 Johns Hopkins study. So-called ‘Right to Carry’ (RTC) laws, which make it easier to obtain and carry weapons by loosening permit requirements or getting rid of them completely, have long been touted by the gun lobby as a crime-fighting tool. Through some crafty statistical manipulation and fabricated survey data, NRA-backed researcher John Lott even produced initial data that appeared to back up the claim. But after correcting for Lott’s intentional and unintentional statistical errors (and using non-fabricated data), Johns Hopkins researchers showed that RTC laws are consistently associated with a significant increase in aggravated assaults. “Using various statistical methods, estimates range from a one to nine percent increase in aggravated assaults as a result of RTC laws,” the researchers concluded.
And in an extensive 2013 study spanning 30 years (1981-2010) and covering all 50 states, researchers from Boston University and Harvard University found a “robust correlation” between estimated levels of gun ownership and actual gun homicides at the state level, even when controlling for factors typically associated with homicides. For each 1 percentage point increase in the prevalence of gun ownership, the state firearm homicide rate increases by 0.9 percent, the authors found. “This research is the strongest to date to document that states with higher levels of gun ownership have disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides,” concluded Dr. Michael Siegel, the study’s lead author. “It suggests that measures which succeed in decreasing the overall prevalence of guns will lower firearm homicide rates.”
And that’s just the tip of iceberg — imagine what we would know if our nation’s leading public health institution, the CDC, could contribute to this research. The very thought is enough to scare the pants off the NRA, which is why they’ve gone to such extreme lengths to suppress this line of research. Stop research and you stifle production of evidence that might actually lead to effective changes in gun policy.
“If there is no research, it is harder to make suggestions for policy reform,” Dr. Wintemute of the UC-Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, told the Huffington Post. “And if you have a vested interest in stopping policy reform, what better way to do it than to choke off the research? It was brilliant and it worked. And my question is how many people died as a result?”