Congressional Democrats are shifting tactics in their effort to secure gun violence research funds for the first time in 23 years by drawing on a decades-old policy initially backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA).
House Democrats are abandoning their goal of getting rid of the Dickey amendment, a policy rider that’s discouraged federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from studying ways to prevent gun-related deaths.
Congress stopped funding gun violence research at the CDC in 1996 when it first passed the Dickey amendment, which prohibits the agency from using federal funds to advocate for gun control.
The amendment, attached to every appropriations bill for decades at the insistence of Republicans, has had a chilling effect on federal research, and Democrats have tried for years to repeal it. Each time they have been rebuffed by Republicans.
But this year, Democrats in the House majority are backing off the party’s previous calls to nix the amendment. House Democrats who want to resume funding for gun violence research at the CDC now say the amendment can stay in place as a “guardrail,” an attempt to allay concerns that the money could be used inappropriately.
“I don’t believe you need to do that. We can leave Dickey in as a guardrail,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa DeLauroNegotiators report progress toward 2022 spending deal Republicans must join us to give Capitol Police funding certainty Democrats return with lengthy to-do list MORE (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations health subcommittee. “My interest is in providing the funding for the research, and making sure that funding is utilized.”
Last year, in a compromise between the two parties, Congress attached a “clarification” to the spending bill for CDC funding that said the amendment didn’t prevent the agency from studying gun violence.
Now Democrats see an opportunity to use the Dickey amendment, something they once hated, to get what they want: funding in the next appropriations bill for gun violence research. But while Democrats control the House, Republicans still hold the majority in the Senate, where GOP senators in the past have been unwilling to strip out the amendment or direct the CDC to study gun violence.
“You have to get something passed through the Senate, and it might make people more comfortable if the Dickey amendment was there,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats torn over pushing stolen-election narrative Wicker: Biden comments on Ukraine caused 'distress' for both parties Biden huddles with group of senators on Ukraine-Russia tensions MORE (D) of Connecticut, where 20 students and six staff members were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.
Murphy said he supports DeLauro’s plan to create a fund for the CDC to research gun violence.
“There’s always been a question as to what the Dickey amendment prohibits and allows,” he said. “If you set up a specific fund, it will be clear about what it allows without having to repeal it.”
Mark Rosenberg, who oversaw gun violence research at the CDC before the amendment was first passed in 1996, opposed Dickey then but supports it now.
“It was an obstacle but it's now a bridge” to getting research funding, he said. “To get Republicans feeling more comfortable, to have people in red states feeling more comfortable, and NRA members feeling more comfortable with the research, we’ve got to keep the Dickey amendment.”
“We need to be able to guarantee to those Republicans, and those people who support gun rights, that the money that goes to CDC will be used for research and only research -- none of it will be used to lobby for gun control,” he added. “That's exactly what the Dickey amendment says.”
But some advocates say the Dickey amendment is bad policy that should be done away with, and that last year’s clarification compromise on Capitol Hill was meaningless.
“I just worry if you drop back now and leave it in place, even if you get a small amount of money out of this Congress, which I’m very skeptical of… you’re setting yourself up for long-term failure,” said Shawn Gremminger, a lobbyist at Families USA, a health care advocacy group.
Gremminger said he might change his mind if a “critical mass” of Republicans supported funding for gun violence research in exchange for keeping the Dickey amendment in place, as a short-term strategy.
But he doesn’t see that happening.
Congressional Republicans are still hesitant to direct the CDC to study gun violence.
“The reason our committee was so successful last year is that we made the decision early to not open the bill to controversial issues,” Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Swalwell slams House Republican for touting funding in bill she voted down Johnson, Thune signal GOP's rising confidence MORE (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s health panel, said in a statement to The Hill when asked about funding gun violence research in the spending bill.
“I’m hopeful we do the same thing this year, which would mean we wouldn’t change things that have been traditionally in the bill or attempt to fund partisan priorities,” he added.
Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeUS budget deficit narrows sharply GOP lawmaker opens door to funding bill to combat omicron Stand-alone reconciliation must end MORE (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee sounded more open to the idea during a hearing last week on gun violence research.
“I, frankly, liked the idea of sort of keeping the Dickey amendment as a guardrail because, again, that doesn't prohibit research,” he said.
But he added that the CDC had already been told it could conduct gun violence research, and said he had concerns about telling researchers what they should study.
His office did not respond to questions from The Hill seeking more information on his position.
CDC Director Robert Redfield has said Congress needs to dedicate funding for it to study the issue.
A coalition of 166 health groups wrote to House leaders last month asking them to approve $50 million for the CDC to study gun violence prevention in the next annual spending bill for the agency.
The groups argue that gun violence is a public health issue, one that is killing an increasing number of people every year.
Gun-related deaths reached their highest point in five decades in 2017, when about 40,000 people died, according to the CDC data. The agency tracks gun deaths but doesn’t study their causes.
Two-thirds of those deaths were suicides, while 37 percent were homicides.
Public health experts say their intention is not to take away people’s guns.
“Treating car injuries as a public health issue didn’t mean demanding people give up cars,” said Dr. John Cullen, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “We need to be able to study this to come up with ways of making gun ownership as safe as possible for people who own guys and those around them.”