05:51 - Source: CNN
Congressman regrets restricting gun research
Washington CNN —  

Democrats are touting that the massive new spending bill will now allow the federal government to conduct gun violence research, but Republicans argue such research was never prevented in the first place.

So who’s right? Well, basically both sides.

A ‘chilling effect’

In 1996, Congress removed $2.6 million – the amount the Centers for Disease Control spent on gun research the year prior – from the CDC’s budget and passed the so-called Dickey Amendment, named after the late Republican Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas. Critics of the amendment say it ultimately lead to the Centers for Disease Control halting gun violence research.

The legislation stated: “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.”

Dickey, in an op-ed with former CDC official Mark Rosenberg for The Washington Post in 2012, described himself as the “point person” for the National Rifle Association in Congress when the amendment was passed and said the legislation “sent a chilling message” to the CDC, which had sponsored multiple studies on gun violence in the decade prior.

While the government still did limited amounts of research after the amendment, it’s true that the legislation had the “chilling” effect that Dickey mentioned, as it sparked a self-imposed ban on gun research at the CDC, whose leaders cited a lack of funds. Even when President Barack Obama ordered the CDC to conduct research after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the agency still held back.

Before he passed away last year, Dickey reversed his position from 1996 and urged the government to carry out research on gun violence. Once former enemies in the gun control debate, Dickey and Rosenberg – who was in charge of gun research at the CDC from 1993-2000 – teamed up to champion the same message: There’s no reason why the government couldn’t spend money on research to prevent gun violence, just like it spends millions to prevent traffic deaths.

“We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago, but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners,” they wrote in the 2012 op-ed.

Amid a spate of mass shootings in the past decade, Democrats have been calling for a full repeal of the Dickey Amendment to send a message back to the CDC to resume research. The powerful National Rifle Association, however, has long supported the amendment and argued that the amendment itself didn’t prevent gun violence research – only advocacy – and therefore didn’t need any changes.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also argued at a recent congressional hearing — which took place after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting — that the Dickey Amendment did not prohibit research.

“My understanding is that the rider does not in any way impede our research mission. It is simply about advocacy,” he said. When pressed again on whether he would “actively speak out” and “be proactive on the research initiative” as it relates to guns, Azar responded that “we certainly will.”

“We are in the science business and the evidence-generating business,” he added. “So I will certainly have our agencies working in this field, as they do across the whole broad spectrum.”

A clarification

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a freshman Democrat from a Florida swing district, formally introduced the latest language on the CDC and declared its adoption in the massive funding bill as a “major breakthrough” on Twitter. “It’s a victory for our country & children. Our work to stop gun violence will continue,” she wrote.

The legislation does not repeal the Dickey Amendment, but in a concession to Democrats, it offers what one Republican aide described as a “clarification.” The bill still says the CDC can’t use taxpayer funds to promote gun control, but it also refers to Azar’s comments stating the CDC can still conduct research.

“While appropriations language prohibits the CDC and other agencies from using appropriated funding to advocate or promote gun control, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence,” the bill states.

By codifying the secretary’s comments into report language for a bill that’s expected to become the law of the land, the remarks gain additional legal significance than simply a committee statement. This strategy also allows both side of the aisle to argue they won, so to speak. Republicans don’t appear as though they’re promoting gun research — by saying it was already legal — while Democrats can argue it was a modest victory because the language is more explicit and sets a precedent any subsequent HHS official would need to follow.

A spokeswoman for the NRA, Jennifer Baker, maintained the spending bill changes nothing about the Dickey Amendment.

“Not a single word in the amendment changed the prohibition on using taxpayer dollars to advocate for gun control,” she said. “It’s never been prohibited. I guess for folks who can’t read or do not understand the English language, it helps them understand.”

Sean Kirkendall, director of policy at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said he expects the clarification in the spending bill to have a “dramatic impact” in the world of gun violence research, saying it should remove concerns of backlash from Congress at the CDC. “It further signals and lets those folks know there’s nothing to fear.”

He described the 1996 amendment as the initial freeze and Dickey’s reversal on his position in recent years, coupled with Democrats calling attention to the amendment’s effect, as efforts to chip away at the iceberg. “We’re no longer really in the Ice Age when it comes to this,” he said.

Meanwhile, Democrats on Capitol Hill are hopeful that the clarification will spur the CDC into action.

“Proud of the progress to set aside the research ban imposed by the #DickeyAmendment to allow the @CDCgov to research gun violence in America,” tweeted Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat.

“This is long overdue,” tweeted Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat.

Meanwhile, some described it as a modest victory in the overall gun control battle.

“That’s good,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, while referring to the language. “But these are baby steps when we need real reform.”

CNN’s Jen Christensen contributed to this report.