Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin wants to return federal funding to health research on gun violence. But first he’ll have to remove an appropriations amendment that has put a chill on gun studies for two decades.
This week he stopped at a Chicago social service center to talk about his plan to remove the Dickey Amendment from legislation.
“We should invest federal funds in making guns safer and determining ways that people can own firearms in a safer and more responsible way,” Durbin said. He was flanked by Ald. WIllie Cochrane and a University of Chicago pediatrician. “I’ll be working to restore these funds that for 20 years have been cut in research in public health.”
National Rifle Association spokesman Lars Dalseide, however, interprets the situation differently. He notes that the amendment doesn’t prohibit all firearms research, just research that could be deemed to “promote or advocate for gun control.”
“The fact that the senator uses this as an excuse for why the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] doesn’t perform any firearm research speaks volumes about what their true intentions are,” he said. “And that is to promote gun control.”
This statement illustrates the conflict at the heart of the issue: interpretation of the amendment. Following the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., in December of 2012, President Barack Obama announced a lifting of the ban through executive order—one that interpreted gun violence research as something that did not “promote or advocate gun control.”
But the amendment remains and officials at the Centers for Disease Control have remained cautious. Although they didn’t agree to an interview, they sent WBEZ a statement. It noted that, in 1997 (the year the Dickey amendment was enacted), Congress cut its budget by $2.7 million (the amount equal to its spending on gun violence research) and “threatened to impose further cuts if that research continued.”
At the Chicago event, Durbin was joined by Dr. Catherine Humikowski, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at the University of Chicago Hospital. She talked about her experience treating young victims of gun violence and her dismay that the health aspects of the issue aren’t being studied more.
“Why, I ask as a parent and a pediatrician, would anyone actively block research to understand a problem that kills as many children a year or more than cancer,” she asked.
Durbin said he knows he will face opposition from lobbyists and Republican colleagues. But he noted that the original sponsor of the bill, Rep.Jay Dickey (R-AR), has since recognized that the restrictions he helped put in place have hobbled gun violence research.
“So he’s reversed his position,” Durbin said. “I hope some on his side of the aisle will join him.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ health reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org