As I argued yesterday, one of the most dangerous refrains we hear every time guns are used to kill people is: “Don’t politicize this tragedy!” It is so dangerous because it has become an effective way to silence the conversation on guns even before it starts and, without a conversation, without coming to terms with the effects caused by our lack of anything resembling gun policy, nothing can be done. It should remind us of the decades-long campaign to erase gay persons from daily life, passing laws that force us into the closet, and keeping us at the margins so no one cares if we live or die.
Republicans, conservatives, and the National Rifle Association (NRA) have another weapon for shutting off debate even before it starts: the Dickey Amendment. In short, the Dickey Amendment, since its passage in 1996, cut off federal funds for research into guns, gun deaths, and gun safety. Even its eponymous sponsor, a mild-mannered former Republican congressman from Arkansas, Jay Dickey (pictured), regrets the abyss he helped create. The victims of gun deaths since 1996 and, especially, since the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban certainly regret it. The only people that don’t seem to regret it are Republican members of the House and Senate and the leadership of the NRA. It’s time for the Dickey Amendment to go. And the only way to do that is to vote Republicans out of office.
Guns were a fraught topic in the mid-1990s. After the Democrats passed gun control legislation in the early years of the Bill Clinton administration, the party, which had controlled the House of Representatives for most of the previous 60 years and, without interruption, for the previous 40, lost in a landslide. Some thought it was because of guns. With Republicans, backed by the NRA, in charge, one of their first targets was the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the federal arm tasked with conducting research to protect the health and safety of the American people. The CDC had been funding research that, not surprisingly, showed strong correlations between ease of access to guns and gun deaths. Studies also showed that the lack of any safety technology to prevent accidental gun deaths made death-by-gun more likely. There were other studies, most of which highlighted the public health dangers of guns and assault weapons.
The NRA was having none of this. Claiming that the CDC was a bunch of liberal activists engaging in advocacy and hoping to take away everyone’s guns, the NRA and its allies in Congress tried to abolish the agency. That didn’t work, but Jay Dickey proposed redirecting all funds–just $2.6 million in 1995–away from gun studies to other public health issues. His amendment included this line: “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.”
Since then, the CDC has neither funded nor has its scientists conducted a single study related to guns. There are two reasons why: First, the Bill Clinton administration, terrified after losing Congress, directed the CDC to shut it down, shut it all down. The George W. Bush administration eagerly continued the directive. And, second, the CDC itself was terrified of being branded an advocacy organization. It had important work to do. It became gospel, then, that the Dickey Amendment was to be read broadly. The CDC was out of the business of studying guns.
Dickey and the NRA crafted a rather ingenious law and accompanying strategy by conflating research with advocacy. After all, it seems axiomatic that easier access to guns is going to correlate with higher gun deaths. Studies showed as much. But the NRA, which wants easy access to guns, the results of such studies contradicted their advocacy. So, any study that said guns were bad wasn’t research, it was anti-gun advocacy. It was a devious tactic to turn studies that show how evil you are into evidence that the other side wasn’t playing fair.
President Obama has done what he can to change things. After the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, he ordered all federal agencies, including the CDC, to interpret the Dickey Amendment literally, that is, to prohibit advocacy, not research. The CDC has hesitated, though, out of fear and funding shortfalls. They have long memories and scars from the culture wars of the 1990s.
Without evidence, it is hard to make recommendations to policy makers. Without research, it is hard to develop technologies to make guns safer. By comparison, consider how much work the CDC has done over the last 20 years in highway safety. Several million dollars worth of studies led to the ubiquitous barriers separating traffic patterns on major highways today and to changes in policy and road design. Highway deaths plummeted as a result.
The Dickey Amendment needs to go for the same reason we need to “come out” as advocates for gun legislation. A broad Dickey Amendment is a choking informed debate. It has been an unfortunately successful attempt to remove science from gun policymaking. And without science, policy debates can be hijacked by willfully blind denialists. It is long past the time to make repeal of the Dickey Amendment part of our national agenda. If Khaleesi finally comes to Westeros, we need to make it happen.