The Washington Post Sunday
Former congressman wielded far-reaching influence on gun-control laws
Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican who served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was best known for a 1996 amendment that effectively put an end to federal research on gun violence — and who later regretted what he had done — died April 20 in Pine Bluff, Ark. He was 77.
The death was confirmed by a funeral home in Pine Bluff. The Arkansas Encyclopedia of History & Culture listed the cause as complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Mr. Dickey was elected to Congress in 1992 as the first Republican to represent the sprawling 4th District, which covers much of rural southwestern Arkansas. During his eight years in Congress, Mr. Dickey was an outspoken conservative, recommending cuts in funding for, among other things, public broadcasting, stem-cell research and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
As the self-described “point man” in the House for the National Rifle Association, he questioned an official of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at a congressional hearing in 1996. Mr. Dickey was interested in a $2.6 million program at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Control and Prevention — a program investigating firearm deaths as a public health problem.
Mr. Dickey asked the director of the center, Mark Rosenberg, why the CDC was interested in promoting gun control.
“Can you stop violence?” Mr. Dickey asked. “You can’t stop violence unless you stop people from committing it, can you? How can you stop violence by attacking the gun?”
“We’re not trying to attack the gun, sir,” Rosenberg said. “We’re trying to understand the problem . . . . And absolutely yes, we can prevent violence.”
Mr. Dickey and other Republican congressmen then cut the CDC’s budget by $2.6 million — the amount of the study on gun violence.
Mr. Dickey also inserted a provision into a federal spending bill, stating, “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.”
The Dickey Amendment, as it became known, was little noticed at the time, but it had a far-reaching effect. Although it did not explicitly forbid research on gun violence, the CDC has not authorized any significant study on the subject violence since.
The National Center for Injury Control and Prevention was shut down, and Rosenberg lost his job.
“It’s evident this has had a chilling effect,” Arthur L. Kellermann, dean of the School of Medicine at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and a onetime gun-safety researcher, told The Washington Post in 2015. “This isn’t about guns. This is about preventing tragedies.”
In 2015, according to CDC statistics, more than 36,000 people were killed by firearms in the United States.
Not long after the 1996 congressional hearing, Mr. Dickey invited Rosenberg to his office, and over time the two ideological opponents became friends. Mr. Dickey spoke to Rosenberg about many Americans’ bedrock belief in the Second Amendment, and Rosenberg explained that the quest of science is to find solutions to problems.
Mr. Dickey said he was particularly impressed when Rosenberg noted that traffic fatalities had diminished after federal studies recommended the use of seat belts, air bags, guardrails and other measures that fell short of banning automobiles.
In 2012, Mr. Dickey and Rosenberg wrote an essay for The Post in which they joined forces to urge research into the causes of gun violence.
“We won’t know the cause of gun violence until we look for it,” they wrote.
“I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time,” Mr. Dickey told the Huffington Post in 2015. “I have regrets.”
Jay Woodson Dickey Jr. was born Dec. 14, 1939, in Pine Bluff. His father was a prominent lawyer.
Mr. Dickey graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1961 and from the university’s law school in 1963. He was the lawyer for University of Arkansas basketball coach Eddie Sutton and acted as an agent for several Razorback players when they turned professional.
In 1988, Mr. Dickey was appointed by then-Gov. Bill Clinton to serve as a special justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. In 1998, when Clinton was president, Mr. Dickey voted to impeach him.
Mr. Dickey was defeated in his 2000 reelection bid by Democrat Mike Ross. Two years later, when Mr. Dickey was campaigning to regain his old seat, he sent an email to a friend who owned the Pine Bluff Commercial newspaper, asking for an endorsement and for favorable news coverage. The paper’s editor resigned in protest. Mr. Dickey lost the election.
His marriage to Betty Poole ended in divorce. (In 2004, then Gov. Mike Huckabee appointed her chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, the first woman to hold the position.)
Survivors include four children.
After the 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, in which 26 children and school workers were killed by semiautomatic rifle fire, President Barack Obama called on the CDC to investigate the roots of gun violence. No funds were appropriated for that purpose by Congress.
“We need to turn this over to science,” Mr. Dickey said in 2015, “and take it away from politics.”