Tucked inside the $1.4 trillion bipartisan spending deal hammered out in Congress last month is $25 million for the studying the effects of gun violence in the U.S. While it may sound like common sense given America’s gun-violence crisis, it’s actually a breakthrough: the first time in more than 20 years that Congress has appropriated any spending at all for this crucial issue.
Ending that outrageous ban on important knowledge about this deadly epidemic is something to celebrate. As Mark Rosenberg, formerly head of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said recently: “It signals an end to the drought of knowledge about preventing this significant problem.”
In 1996, Congress, then in the grip of Republican majorities in both chambers, instituted a blanket ban on what it alleged was advocacy for gun control by federal gun-safety researchers. While the so-called Dickey Amendment didn’t technically prevent federal agencies from any study of gun violence, that became the practical effect of the funding ban.
That’s because the ban put the Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies in an impossible position: Congress had effectively decreed that whatever researchers found when studying gun violence, that research couldn’t bolster the case for gun control. It was a classic instance of putting politics before science, with a preemptive decree that the research must not lead to solutions that many would consider common sense.
As a result, we know far less today than we should about gun violence — though, thankfully, research outside the federal government has continued to provide some crucial data.
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We know, for example, that the U.S. has by far the highest rate of private gun ownership in the advanced world, and by far the highest rates of gun violence. Is that a cause and effect, or just a remarkable coincidence? That’s the kind of question federal researchers have stopped asking, for fear of running afoul of the Dickey Amendment.
The insertion of the $25 million in the spending bill was a nod to political reality: With a Democrat-controlled House demanding progress on gun safety for the first time in decades, failure to include any research appropriation could have complicated passage of the spending bill. It’s yet another reminder that elections matter.
The Dickey Amendment was named for Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., who championed the funding ban in 1996 but came to regret the stifling effect it had on federal gun-safety research. With continued research, “we would’ve found a solution, in my opinion,” Dickey told NPR in 2015, two years before he died. “And I think it’s a shame that we haven’t.”
It is. But now that science — and sanity — have started making a comeback in Washington on this issue, solutions might again become possible.