Dickey: How One Congressman Helped Ban Research on America’s Gun Problem…and Lived to Regret It

Censorship, Government Information, Information Access, Legislation, Political Viewpoint

By: Robert Sarwark

Enter Dickey

DickeyIn 1996, during the Clinton Administration, an element of intellectual censorship entered into the fray of American gun-control policy. Along with that year’s federal spending package, Republican U.S. Representative Jay W. Dickey, Jr. of Arkansas, a member of the NRA for life, wrote and introduced an amendment to block the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from scientifically studying the causes and effects of gun violence on the American public. The amendment also removed the $2.6 million in funding for firearm-violence research that had previously been allocated to the CDC’s budget. Specifically, the following language of the “Dickey Amendment” is of essence:

Provided further, 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…

Though research alone cannot necessarily alter public policy, policy is, under most circumstances, informed by public research. Herein lies the censorship: How is the nation’s preeminent body tasked with preventing disease and poor public health to comprehensively accomplish its mandate if it is barred from doing so?

The so-called Dickey Amendment is in vigor to this day, over 20 years later. Many advocates for heightened gun control, naturally, have called for its repeal.

A History of (Gun) Violence

If we want to know why it is that the United States has such a complicated relationship with guns, we might first look to a few important historical strains.

For starters, of course, there’s the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (Bill of Rights). In point of fact this is a tidy little statute, ambiguous in its simplicity: Armed militias may help repel tyranny (as they of course did against the British during the Revolutionary War). But, as it follows, the framers of the Constitution could have never foreseen the advancements in technology that led to the invention of modern automatic and semi-automatic firearms; an 18th-century single-shot musket and an AR-15 are about as similar as a Clydesdale and a Ford Taurus.

Yet another source of gridlock, whether we care to admit or not, is the United States’ long legacy of frontier psychology, complex and often fraught dynamics of race and class, and, especially among some rural or semi-rural populations, mistrust or hatred of all or most government regulation. If we are free in our speech and other inalienable rights, so the reasoning goes, so too should we be in our rights to protect ourselves, our families, and our property in the midst of this ongoing experiment in democracy.

All of these forces have morphed in tandem with relatively easy and legal access to firearms into a phenomenon of public danger that is incomparable to any other economically developed nation. The National Rifle Association, a non-profit organization, has seized upon these charged issues to engender a political environment in which no nuance shall be brooked: Either you fully support the Second Amendment or you wish to repeal it (i.e., are wrong). And on the left, the zero-sum argument of “gun control or dead kids” has also arisen, especially after the most recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida.

On Second Thought

After losing two subsequent re-election campaigns in 2000 and 2002, Jay Dickey retired from political life. Between this time and his death in April 2017, he appears to have had a change of heart about the amendment that bears his name.

On July 27, 2012, Dickey co-wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post with Mark L. Rosenberg, then and current president and chief executive of the Task Force for Global Health (previously he had been director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC).

Once upon a time, law-abiding citizens believed that violence generated by evil always had existed and always would exist. By the mid-20th century, that sense of fatalism was yielding to discoveries by social scientists, physicians and epidemiologists. Now a body of knowledge exists that makes it clear that an event such as the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., was not a “senseless” occurrence as random as a hurricane or earthquake but, rather, has underlying causes that can be understood and used to prevent similar mass shootings.

With this post, I do not seek to further polarize this issue (as if that were even possible). But I do hope to present this blog’s readership with a bona fide example of government censorship in our midst. Somewhat surprisingly, even Jay Dickey himself, once so sure of his ideological footing, came to understand and even lament that the obfuscation of a problem cannot help ameliorate it. And as both Dickey and Rosenberg jointly concluded in their piece: “We must learn what we can do to save lives. It is like the answer to the question ‘When is the best time to plant a tree?’ The best time to start was 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.” Consensus is possible. And, as the U.S. has definitively seen in the reduction in total deaths due to traffic accidents (thanks to the links between robust research and policy reforms), so is change.


Robert SarwarkRobert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.

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