Hours before last month's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, a group of physicians petitioned Congress to end the so-called Dickey Amendment, a nearly twenty-year-old ban that effectively prevents the CDC from researching gun violence. Brooke talks with Todd Zwillich, Washington Correspondent for The Takeaway, about the history of the ban and its current political state.
"Tema di Otto e Mezzo" by Nino Rota
BROOKE: The dearth of polls charting public opinion on gun violence that Colleen Barry noticed when she set out to write a survey on the topic is part of a larger shortage of any public health research on firearms. And it can be traced back to a 1996 measure slashing the CDC’s budget for gun studies.
The absence of up-to-date research on gun violence was something President Obama noted in his speech, with a hint of exasperation in his voice.
OBAMA: “With more research, we could further improve gun safety. Just as with more research, we’ve reduced traffic fatalities enormously over the last 30 years. We do research when cars, food, medicine, even toys harm people so that we make them safer. And you know what -- research, science -- those are good things. They work. (Laughter and applause.) They do.”
Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for The Takeaway. We spoke to him at the beginning of December right after the shooting in San Bernardino, California. I asked him to take us back to when this all started. It was in 1993 when the New England Journal of Medicine published a CDC funded study that found quote “keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide.”
ZWILLICH: Right and this is the study, you know, when you hear gun control debates amongst your friends or your relatives, permeated the culture "it's more dangerous to have a gun in the home than it is to not have one", you hear that all the time. This is the study that showed that. That was 1993 and by 1995 and into 1996, the National Rifle Association started to lean on members of Congress to say "Hey, this study that came out that was funded by the Centers for Disease Control, this is taxpayer money, they're advocating for gun control. We don't want you paying for this."
BROOKE: So that brings us to Representative Jay Dickey of Arkansas, who attached an amendment to a 1996 omnibus appropriations bill.
ZWILLICH: He sure did, and it's short. It's only about 20 words long. And it says "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". That's all it said. It didn't say you can't do the research, it didn't say you can't do whatever epidemiologic study you want to. And you say, "Well that's not a ban. That doesn't tell people what to study" But here's the problem, and this was really crafty back in the 90s. Before they introduced this amendment Brooke, they slashed the funding for the CDC by $2.4 million, the exact amount that had been used for this research in the injury prevention and control fund. And what message did that send? It said you can do whatever research you want, but if you report your research, and that research tacitly or directly advocates for gun control, you're gonna be breaking the rules.
BROOKE: Certainly the American Psychological Association and others have laid the blame for this amendment directly at the feet of the NRA. I don't know that the NRA would deny it. The issue seems to be that the NRA equated gun violence research with anti-gun political advocacy.
ZWILLICH: And Jay Dickey himself has talked about that, that back at this time, you have to remember how contentious was. It's contentious now, but it was really in play, I mean, back in the 90s they had the assault weapons ban of 1994, that had just happened, so this was a very hot and active political issue. The NRA thought that the advocacy that was coming from public health researches, if they went into the medical journals and said "my research shows that you should get rid of your gun," or, "my research shows that we would be safer if there were fewer guns available or if it were harder to buy a gun", yeah they saw that as gun control, and maybe it was advocating for gun control. Nevertheless, this was the action that they leaned on members of Congress to take and they took it.
BROOKE: So what kind of information don't we have, do you think, because of this ban?
ZWILLICH: Well I think we don't know a lot about how guns hurt people in the real world. What's the interaction between having a gun in the home and substance abuse? How more likely are you to injure someone else or injure yourself with a firearm? If there's alcohol in the house? How is it connected to people's income? Are people with lower incomes at higher risk, do they have other things to watch out for? I think there are a great number of things that researchers would tell you that they would like to know about how those guns either in the home or just floating around out in the world interact with how we act every day. That's what epidemiology is all about. And I think we lack a great deal of that information about what is it that leads to these situations where a gun can hurt a person. It's hard to imagine any other area of human harm where 33,000 people die and 85,000 are injured by the way, where the primary government research public health agency isn't permitted to study it. It's almost an egregious omission from the perspective of science and public health.
BROOKE: And the same research ban was extended to the National Institutes of Health with almost the same language a few years ago. But Todd, after the shooting at that historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, in July, an amendment was proposed that would have reversed the CDC research ban, but you reported that didn't go anywhere.
ZWILLICH: No it didn't. This was a Democratic amendment in the House Appropriations Committee. And Republicans voted down an effort to reverse the Dickey amendment. And I turned around and asked John Boehner, who was then the Speaker of the House about it.
BROOKE: And he offered you this now-famous reply.
JOHN BOEHNER: Listen, the CDC is there to look at diseases that need to be dealt with to protect the public health. I'm sorry, but a gun is not a disease. And guns don't kill people, people do. And when people use weapons in a horrible way, we should condemn the actions of the individual, and not blame the action on some weapon.
ZWILLICH: Well an automobile is not a disease and it kills the same number of people as guns every year. A bacteria is not a disease for that matter. So I think from the epidemiologist's perspective, that statement from the political sphere on Capitol Hill was really really hard to take.
BROOKE: So let's talk about the man whose name is on that ban, Jay Dickey. He went through something of a conversion.
ZWILLICH: Yeah, Jay Dickey has come out, he's been talking to reporters to issue his apology. He basically said, "Look, this was a debate in the 90s, I thought that a government agency was advocating for gun control and I did think that was inappropriate, but I wish hadn't gone as far. I wish they were doing the research. I wish we knew more."
BROOKE: Is it because he's no longer in office that he can take this position?
ZWILLICH: Almost certainly. I mean, I don't want to try to imagine or speculate what Jay Dickey would say if he were still an elected official. Who knows? But it's certainly easier for him, now that he's no longer a member of Congress. Look, Brooke, this is about whether or not a public health agency can study a public health matter, and I think most people know that. But I had a conversation with a senior Republican aide here on Capitol Hill a few weeks ago and asked, "Are you gonna undo this thing? You just have to strike 20 words and it's gone." And this Republican aide said, "Look, to you and me in this building, it's the Dickey amendment. Outside this building and outside the beltway, that's called gun control, and that's how it will be perceived. So the answer is no"
ZWILLICH: Well Brooke, who knows forever. You know, frankly, this is one of the smaller issues to the gun control lobby itself. I have asked them if they want to go after this ban at the CDC, and they say they do, but they consider this low-hanging fruit. They want the assault weapons ban. They want stricter background checks. And they're afraid if they go for reversing the ban on a couple million dollars of research at the CDC, it will be a small moral victory, but it will be the only crumb they get.
BROOKE: I just can't help questioning the logic of gun control advocates who worry about this being the solitary crumb. It seems to me that research is something that you can build an argument on.
ZWILLICH: I think many of them see that, I think in the world of politics, however, there's always a danger and it's not just in the gun area. This happened in immigration too, and I won't digress too much, but there were lots of little things that could have gotten done on immigration when the sides parted, Brooke they didn't get done because no one wanted the crumb. We want big immigration reform and we're not gonna chip away at all this political capital that they had. For me, this isn't really about gun control at all. I mean, I used to be a health care reporter and a science reporter, and from that perspective, it's really for open and unrestricted research into the things that do hurt, harm and injure Americans, whether it's a bacteria, a virus, domestic violence, an automobile, a knife, or a firearm. And carving off one of those things because it's politically charged is something I think that many people who value science and research and what it can do for us find it inexcusable.
BROOKE: Todd, thank you very much.
ZWILLICH: Brooke, it's a pleasure.
BROOKE: Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for the Takeaway, from PRI and WNYC.
BOB: Coming up, So now we know America’s opinion about gun control. Does it matter?
BROOKE: This is On the Media.