Mark Rosenberg calls Jay Dickey every so often just to see how he’s doing. Both men are in their 70s now. They trade health updates. They share news about their families. Mark once opened some doors for Jay’s daughter to land a job. Jay offered advice when Mark’s son was having problems. These phone calls, connecting one man in Atlanta with another in Pine Bluff, Ark., have become anticipated moments in their lives.
“He’s just an extraordinary guy,” Jay says.
“He’s such a kind and caring person,” says Mark.
Their relationship is also an unlikely one. Twenty years ago, these two men were enemies on opposite sides of the nation’s gun debate. Their distrust was so deep and well known, they were warned to avoid each other.
Back then, Jay was Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), the National Rifle Association’s self-described point man on the Hill. And Mark was Dr. Mark Rosenberg, a champion of gun-violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When they clashed in person for the first time in April 1996, it was a meeting that would ripple across the years and into the present. It quickly led to the CDC’s controversial decision to halt its gun-violence research. Dickey declared victory. Rosenberg lost his job. And for two decades, the CDC has refused to investigate shootings as a public health problem, a position that even presidential pleas and strings of mass shootings have proved powerless to reverse.
Today, the gun debate is still shaped by what happened between these two men. They now say what happened was a mistake, one that has spurred on gun violence’s tragic toll.
As the 2016 presidential hopefuls offer competing visions of how to deal with shootings — with everything on the table from stricter gun laws to expanding gun rights — these two men are trying to get their message out. They believe they have a solution. But they are not sure that anyone, on either side, wants to hear it.
The official topic of the House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on April 30, 1996, was the CDC’s budget. But everyone knew the real focus was the agency’s study of gun violence.
The CDC had just started to think about violence as a disease: If you studied it, you might learn how to prevent it. Little was known about a problem that causes roughly 70,000 injuries and 30,000 deaths a year, many of them suicides and accidents.
In 1993, a rigorous CDC-funded study in the New England Journal of Science found that firearms kept at home greatly increased the risk of homicide by a family member or close acquaintance, rather than offering self-protection.
That finding fired up the opposition. Gun violence is a criminal justice problem, not a public health one, they argued. The NRA in particular accused the CDC of being overtly anti-gun.
The NRA urged its congressional allies to target the CDC’s funding: the $2.6 million spent annually on gun-violence research. And Dickey proudly led the charge.
That’s how Rosenberg, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, ended up sitting at the subcommittee witness table on that day in April.
He and Dickey had been sparring in the press for months.
Now, they sat in the same room for the first time.
Dickey dug right in, asking why the CDC seemed to align itself with gun-control groups.
Rosenberg said it was just trying to spread the word about the gun-violence problem.
“The problem you’re talking about is gun-related activities?” Dickey said, according to transcripts. “Is that what you’re saying the problem is?”
“No,” Rosenberg countered. The center focuses on violence. “I think it is so important for us to remember that the problem is the problem. It is the problem of premature deaths of our young people that we’re trying to focus on.”
“Can you stop violence? 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.”
Rosenberg left the hearing room in disbelief.
“He truly felt the CDC was trying to take people’s guns away,” Rosenberg recalled.
The Republican-led Congress soon stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget. More importantly, tucked inside the next federal spending bill was a provision that would change the trajectory of the nation’s gun debate — what became known as the Jay Dickey Amendment.
Rosenberg can still recall the words by heart: No funds for the CDC injury center “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
In one sense, he found it ridiculous. Scientists follow data. They don’t push policies. But he also recognized the implied threat.
“It was really a shot fired across the bow: If any of you researchers do this research or bureaucrats even think about doing it, we are going to harass you,” Rosenberg said.
At first, Rosenberg tried to spot a loophole in the Dickey Amendment.
He had the support of his boss, David Satcher. But Satcher left in 1998, on his way to becoming U.S. surgeon general. Rosenberg’s new boss seemed less interested. A year later, Rosenberg said, he was fired.
“The message was: This is too hot to handle.”
The CDC has never returned to funding firearm studies. The agency held firm even when President Obama ordered it to get back to researching “the causes of gun violence” in early 2013, shortly after a gunman killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Private funding has not absorbed the slack, either, scientists say. No one, it seems, wants to pick a fight over guns.
“It’s evident this has had a chilling effect,” said Arthur Kellermann, who as a researcher at Emory University co-authored the 1993 study of firearms kept at home.
Kellermann moved on from the gun debate. Today, he is dean of the medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. But he said he recognizes what’s been lost.
“There’s been so little science on this topic in the last 20 years that there’s no new information to keep the public engaged,” he said.
People seem to have forgotten why the research is important.
“This isn’t about guns,” he said. “This is about preventing tragedies.”
Two weeks after the fateful hearing, Rosenberg was called back to Capitol Hill. A staffer in Dickey’s office wanted to go over some data. Rosenberg’s superiors didn’t like the idea. A match to gasoline, they called it. They told him to go but avoid the congressman.
Rosenberg intended to follow orders, but as he was preparing to leave, the staffer said the congressman was in his office and would like to say hello. Rosenberg gulped hard.
He walked in. The two men shook hands. Dickey offered him a seat. It was clear the congressman intended for him to visit awhile.
This was Dickey’s plan, a lesson from his days as a trial lawyer in Arkansas.
“I’d tried a lot of cases and knew the value of not letting divisions exist,” Dickey recalled.
The two men talked about their children. Dickey had four. Rosenberg had two. They hit it off.
Weeks later, Dickey invited Rosenberg’s teenage son and his class to visit him in Congress. The offer was accepted. Rosenberg’s son wrote a thank-you note. Later, Rosenberg spotted the handwritten letter on the congressman’s wall.
Neither man can explain why they started talking or even how they found something to talk about. But they kept doing it. The relationship evolved over years.
And slowly, cautiously, they started to talk about guns.
There was no epiphany. No moment when the walls tumbled down. But by the time the two men started talking about the issue dividing them, they were friends.
“What friendship lets you do is trust the other person,” Rosenberg said. “If you’re going to learn from someone else, you have to trust them and trust what they are saying. And he taught me a lot.”
Dickey explained why he believed the CDC had an anti-gun bias. That suspicion appeared to be confirmed when the agency backed down in the face of his amendment. It looked to him as though the CDC lost interest once gun control was off the table.
Rosenberg countered that the CDC never wanted to ban guns — the agency was interested in injury prevention. And he thought it was possible to study the problem while protecting gun rights. But he acknowledged that the CDC missed its chance to make that clear.
Rosenberg taught Dickey about the value of scientific research, describing how deaths from auto accidents plummeted with federal research funding fueling the widespread use of seat belts, anti-lock brakes and air bags. Today, for the first time on record, U.S. death rates from automobiles and firearms are the same — driven primarily by a precipitous drop in fatal auto accidents.
“We did all that, saving 300,000 lives, without banning cars,” Rosenberg said. “We could do the same thing with gun-
Dickey was most intrigued by one simple innovation — cable barriers on highway medians to prevent crossover crashes.
Dickey saw a clear parallel with guns. The barriers did not interfere with traffic or ban cars. He envisioned similar limits on guns. He knew that would be controversial.
“But something needs to be done,” he said. “It’s more obvious now than before that we’re not making progress” in preventing gun violence.
Their private discussions turned public after a gunman killed 12 people inside a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July 2012.
A week later, they co-authored an opinion piece in The Washington Post titled “We won’t know the cause of gun violence until we look for it.”
They wrote that one undesirable consequence of their clash in 1996 was that “U.S. scientists cannot answer the most basic question: What works to prevent firearm injuries?”
In the years since, they have turned to their Rolodexes to gin up support. It’s been tough. Dickey said the NRA hasn’t returned his calls. Earlier this month, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) issued a release trumpeting a letter from Dickey announcing his change of heart about gun studies. It was a start.
Otherwise, a handful of op-eds over the years, including another in The Post last week, haven’t changed the debate — just as nothing has happened after any of the high-profile mass shootings in recent years, despite renewed calls by lawmakers and public health officials for the CDC to resume its gun studies.
The result, Rosenberg said, is a debate distorted on both sides.
Pro-gun groups push for more firearms in more places, such as arming teachers to prevent school shootings. But no one knows whether that will make students safer. The research hasn’t been done.
The rallying cry on the other side is for “common-sense gun control.” Obama offered his support for this after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., early this month.
But Rosenberg dismisses these solutions, too.
“I don’t think common sense can answer these really tough issues,” he said.
Medical literature is littered with solutions that research later proved to be wrong or even harmful, such as gastric freezing to treat stomach ulcers.
“In the area of what works to prevent shootings,” Rosenberg said, “we know almost nothing.”
Today, they both live with their regrets. Rosenberg wishes the CDC had loudly proclaimed that it was not aiming to ban guns. That would have blunted the NRA’s criticism. He said future CDC research should have the twin goals of reducing gun violence and protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
“We need to turn this over to science and take it away from politics,” said the former congressman.
But the research needs to be clearly separated from its policy implications, Dickey said. Any hint of gun control would kill it. Rosenberg suggested funding CDC studies while leaving the Dickey Amendment in place as a reminder.
It also sounds a bit simple, even foolhardy. Today, neither man wields the power he once did.
But they are close friends. They figured out how to trust each other. They listen to each other. And they insist there is something to be learned from that, too.
Dickey just wonders if anyone is paying attention. The debate has become so polarized, the language so extreme, that their effort to be reasonable doesn’t seem to break through the noise.
“I think people don’t want to hear how Mark and I care for each other,” he said.
The other story is more familiar, the one where they are cast as enemies. That fits the polarized gun debate, each side backed into its corner. People know that one. They also know how it has turned out.
The truth is Dickey looks forward to his friend’s next call.