The AMA Should Forget the Dickey Amendment — For Now

By Shailin Thomas

gunRecently, the American Medical Association (“AMA”) passed an emergency resolution at its annual conference declaring gun violence a public health crisis and calling for both restrictions on access to firearms and increased research into gun-related violence. In its announcement, the AMA noted that it plans to “actively lobby Congress to overturn legislation that for 20 years has prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence.”

The AMA’s decision to publicly take a strong stance on gun violence could have a substantive impact on the national conversation. The group represents one of the most powerful voices in health care policy. According to the Sunlight Foundation, the AMA is a “political powerhouse,” raising $1.3 million through its PAC during the 2014 election cycle and spending almost $22 million on lobbying in 2015 alone. To put that in perspective, the National Rifle Association — the nation’s foremost gun rights organization — spent $3.6 million on lobbying that year. Admittedly, the AMA — unlike the NRA — is a multi-issue organization, and it remains to be seen whether it will throw its financial heft behind this new position, but the fact that there is a powerful new party at the table has made some hopeful that members of Congress will start to think more seriously about finding ways to reduce gun violence.

While the AMA’s announcement has come as a welcome boost to proponents of gun control and gun violence research, it plays into a common misconception of existing law, which may raise unnecessary barriers to increasing CDC research in this area. The law the AMA is targeting as “prohibit[ing] the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence,” is the so-called “Dickey Amendment” — a budget provision passed in the federal government’s 1997 omnibus spending bill. The problem with the AMA’s framing is that the Dickey Amendment doesn’t actually bar the CDC from researching gun violence. Rather, it bars the CDC from using any federal funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” While this misconception regarding the Dickey Amendment is common — many mainstream media outlets have referred to the provision as a ban on gun violence research — it’s counterproductive and potentially harmful in the fight to promote more robust public research.

From a practical perspective, this framing is unfortunate because it implies that the Dickey Amendment has to be repealed for the CDC to conduct gun violence research, which — as Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) noted in his recent letter to the CDC — is simply not the case. The CDC can and does perform firearm-related violence research. The main obstacle to more research is not the Dickey Amendment — it’s the fact that Congress no longer appropriates enough money to the CDC for these studies. As CDC spokeswoman Courtney Lenard put it, “It is possible for [the CDC] to conduct firearm-related research…But our resources are very limited.”

Convincing Congress to allocate sufficient funds to the CDC for gun violence research — something that hasn’t been done in 20 years — will be a hard enough mountain to climb. Repealing the Dickey Amendment is a noble goal, but it’s a battle that need not be fought, and it may even make securing funding more difficult, as moderate congressmen could have concerns that research performed without the safeguard of the Dickey Amendment could become too political. Instead of waging a two-front war, the AMA should focus on securing funding for gun violence research and leave the Dickey Amendment for another day.

The more troubling problem with the mischaracterization of the Dickey Amendment as a ban on gun violence research is rhetorical. In equating “advocat[ing] and promot[ing] gun control” with “researching gun violence,” the AMA plays into efforts by gun control opponents to construe objective analysis of the societal impact of firearms as political propaganda. While stricter gun laws may be the natural conclusion from the results of CDC gun studies, it’s important to separate the acquisition of knowledge from the use of that knowledge to advance a normative position. Examining the impact of firearms from a public health perspective is not an argument for or against anything. It is simply a means by which arguments can — and should — be informed.

This is not to say that scientists and researchers are completely disinterested. There are plenty of forces that distort what studies are done and which of those are published — and I imagine these forces are even stronger when it comes to government research. However, the overt politicization of knowledge — the conflation of answering an empirical question with making a normative argument — is damaging to our national discourse, and it hinders our ability to make informed decisions as a society.

The newly announced position of the AMA on gun control could be a substantial step towards mitigating the gun violence epidemic, and that in and of itself is something to applaud. However, by refining its position with respect to the Dickey Amendment, the AMA could streamline its efforts towards securing funding for research the CDC is already empowered to conduct, and it could avoid furthering the harmful rhetoric conflating gun violence research with anti-gun advocacy.

The Dickey Amendment should absolutely be repealed someday, as the CDC should be able to advocate for sensible gun control policies, but the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. The CDC could be doing potentially lifesaving research as we speak, and the AMA should sidestep the rhetorical trap set by gun control opponents and focus on funding that research before wading into the far more contentious battle over the Dickey Amendment.

Photo credit: skyandsea876 (flickr) — CC-BY-NC

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About Shailin Thomas

Shailin Thomas is a second year law student in a joint MD/JD program between Harvard Law School and the New York University School of Medicine. He received a B.S. from Yale University, where he studied cognitive neuroscience — exploring the anatomy and physiology behind social phenomena. His interests lie at the intersection of clinical medicine and the legal forces that shape it. Prior to law school, Shailin worked on both the administrative and clinical sides of health care, and as a research associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He is currently an affiliate of the Berkman Center and Outreach Editor for the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology. A fervent proponent of privacy and freedom of expression, Shailin has also served on the Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.