For­mer con­gress­man wielded far-reach­ing in­flu­ence on gun-con­trol laws

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­

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.”


For­mer con­gress­man Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) served four terms, rep­re­sent­ing the 4th District in south­west­ern Arkansas.

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