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Two Sides Come Together On Gun Research Funding


The massacre in San Bernardino and the string of mass shootings that preceded it has prompted a debate again about what might work to curb gun violence. But when it comes to actually finding solutions to the problem, there's a major roadblock. There hasn't been any federally funded scientific research on the issue since 1996. That's because in '96, Congress froze all federal funding for gun violence research. A Republican congressman from Arkansas named Jay Dickey spearheaded the anti-research legislation, which had the backing of the NRA. On the other side of the issue was the Centers for Disease Control and a doctor named Mark Rosenberg. In 1996, Congressman Jay Dickey didn't actually know Mark Rosenberg. He just knew he wasn't on his team.

JAY DICKEY: I was told not to have anything to do with Mark Rosenberg. He was the point-man for the other side.

MARTIN: And Rosenberg heard the same thing about Dickey.

MARK ROSENBERG: I was told by my handlers at CDC - they said, don't you have anything to do with this guy.

MARTIN: But this is not a story about a rancorous political debate. This is a story about common ground. One day, Rosenberg found himself at Dickey's office. His legislative assistant needed some information from him. And the assistant said, hey, the congressman is here and wants to meet you. Dr. Rosenberg prepared to meet his arch rival.

ROSENBERG: And I thought, oh, my God. So I decided I would go carefully and tread carefully, and I would say hello. Well, we started talking. And we started talking about a number of things that ended up - we were talking about our kids. And then Jay invited my son and his whole class to come visit Congress. And he would get them on a tour and visit with them. And he made this happen. And I was very touched - very touched.

MARTIN: Why did you do that, Congressman Dickey?

DICKEY: Well, you know, I saw Mark's sincerity. And I thought this might be worthwhile. It might be worthwhile to talk to a person who I was, I thought, destined to dislike.

MARTIN: Mr. Dickey, you ended up changing your mind. And you evolved, I guess we could say, on the issue of gun-related research. Can you tell me how that happened? What tipped the balance?

DICKEY: I just started watching what was happening in the news. And then all of a sudden, in the middle of that - and I think Mark showed it to me - what the highway industry did was to solve a problem that would be an example for us. They had a goal of eliminating head-on collisions in our interstate system. And they never - they didn't come out and say, we're going to eliminate the cars. And they spent the time and the money for science and developed these 4-foot barricades that now you can see on the highways between the lanes of the interstate. And the results have been remarkable as far as eliminating head-on collisions. And I thought, well, we could do the same thing. Well, Mark - I think it's Mark's idea. We want science and science investigation and examination to take the place of politics.

MARTIN: Do the two of you talk with the NRA about this? How critical is their support?

DICKEY: Very critical. I can't - I've made phone calls. But I haven't gotten a return call.

ROSENBERG: And Jay was one of their leaders, and they don't return his calls. I think there's a big difference, Rachel, between the leadership of the NRA and the membership. Both Jay and I are members. And I think there's a huge membership there that is desperate to make our homes and our communities safer. They don't have to give up their guns. But the leadership tells them they can't do both. We're telling them we can do both.

MARTIN: So can I have each of you make your case to your respective camps, if we think of it that way? Dr. Rosenberg, if you're talking to a group of people who are resolute about the need to just get rid of the guns - the guns are the problem - how do you respond to them?

ROSENBERG: I think I would say we have got to work together. This has got to be a collaborative solution. And we've got to hear and respect the other side. And if we do, we will understand that we can protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners at the same time that we find policies that will reduce gun homicides and suicides and mass shootings. We can do those things...

MARTIN: How? How do you do those things?

ROSENBERG: We take a policy. And we test it. So let's say the policy is we want to make sure that we do background checks and that we have registration of a certain type of weapon, so we know who has them and how they're using them. Offhand, just by sitting here, I can't tell you whether that will reduce gun violence and protect the rights of legitimate gun owners. But if you let the government fund a study that covers a large enough number of people over a large enough geographic area over a long enough period, I can tell you - and the science can tell you - if this worked.

MARTIN: Congressman Dickey, how do you allay the fears of those who say what you said all those years ago, that if you open the door to this kind of research, it's a slippery slope, and eventually it will mean tighter gun control and what some people perceive as a chipping away at the Second Amendment?

DICKEY: Well, I would say this, that we at least would be doing something if we go and take the gun itself and make a study of it to see if that can be where science can apply safety measures. I don't know what it might be. But it can't be the ownership. That's what we know. It can't be the idea that certain people can't have guns that can have them now. That will just lead to years and years and years more of a standoff. It's just - it's so frustrating, to tell you the truth, Rachel. But I - if the country - now, this is simplistic. If the country would just get along like Mark and I, we can solve this problem. Don't you think so, Dr. Rosenberg?

ROSENBERG: Congressman Dickey, I think it's a good example. And we didn't just start out as not knowing each other. We started out as fierce opponents. And it evolved. You can find the good in people.

MARTIN: That was Mark Rosenberg. He's now president and CEO of The Task Force for Global Health at Emory University. We also heard from former Congressman Jay Dickey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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