A new battlefront has emerged in the nation’s struggle over gun control: a proposed firearm violence research center at the University of California.
In a move being closely watched by advocates on both sides, California lawmakers are pushing for the state to study gun violence, taking over a job the federal government dropped 20 years ago.
In 1996, Congress — persuaded by then-U.S Rep. Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican and self-proclaimed point man for the NRA on Capitol Hill — cut off funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that could be used to “advocate or promote” gun control.
Today, firearm violence in the United States accounts for more than 30,000 deaths a year. Despite repeated efforts to overturn the research ban, the restriction remains intact, preventing experts from answering vital questions about how to prevent gun deaths and injuries. That knowledge gap, in turn, has thwarted efforts to craft laws to reduce gun violence.
In response, California State Sen. Lois Wolk last month introduced a bill to establish a firearm research center at one of the 10 UC campuses. The Democratic lawmaker – who represents Davis, a city that is home to a UC campus — said research is needed to design better gun policies, both in California and nationwide, while protecting the rights of gun owners.
Wolk maintains that lawful gun owners have nothing to fear from the research center proposal. “No one has suggested that we ban cars, but research has shown us that you can make them safer,” she said. “We could ban cars and thereby have no fatalities ever from cars. But that’s not going to happen, and that’s not going to happen with guns either.”
If approved, the state would provide “seed money” — Wolk estimates about $5 million over the course of five years — with the hope that foundations and other funders would chip in. The first hearing on the bill will be March 16 in the Senate Education Committee.
National gun safety groups, including the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, support the bill for its potential nationwide impact.
“We think it’s entirely appropriate for California to help fill that void and to support research that’s already being done,” said Ari Freilich, staff attorney for the group. “The nation is reaching a tipping point on this issue; there’s no upside to ignorance.”
“People are sometimes very surprised at how short a leash the gun lobby has Congress on,” Freilich added. “This is an industry that has successfully roped Congress into keeping the public in the dark.”
The National Rifle Association opposes the bill. NRA spokesperson Amy Hunter cited the reference to the ban on CDC gun research in the bill’s press release as an indication that the measure is intended to push gun control. “We have no reason to believe that this is going to be research that’s worthwhile,” she said.
“We’re not against research, just against research that promotes and advocates for gun control,” Hunter added.
Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, took a similar stance.
Even though neither the UC campus that would house the research unit nor the center director has been determined, Paredes expessed concern that the center would be run by Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician and prominent gun violence researcher. Wintemute currently directs UC Davis’ Violence Prevention Research Program, producing studies that have been funded, in part, by his own money.
“This seems like the Dr. Garen Wintemute Full-Employment Act. Frankly, we don’t want our tax dollars going to a research operation that has been nothing but anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment and pro-gun control,” Paredes said.
Paredes predicted, however, that the measure would pass. “We’re pretty sure that they’re going to cram this down our throats,” he said, referring to Democratic lawmakers.
Wintemute confirmed that his program will vie for the research center, if the law is passed. And if Wintemute faces political pressure, he will be prepared. He said he’s even been the target of death threats in response to his research. But he pointed out that scientists investigating climate change, tobacco and even motor vehicle safety also have faced resistance.
“The common thread is that there are economic interests that see themselves as being put in jeopardy by the research,” Wintemute said. “Over the long haul, the public’s interest comes out on top and precedence is given to reducing injury and death over protecting a narrow economic interest.”
Wintemute was inspired to start researching gun violence by his work in emergency medicine. He saw that most gunshot victims die on the spot; by the time they get to the ER, it’s too late. So he decided to focus on preventing gun casualties in the first place.
According to Wolk’s office, the lawmaker was motivated to move ahead with her bill after reading an op-ed co-authored by Dickey, who had a change of heart in the years after his amendment cut off gun research at the CDC. Dickey has joined forces with his one-time foe, Mark Rosenberg, who in the 1990s was the director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. The two have thrown their support behind Wolk’s bill.
Rosenberg said before effective policies to combat gun violence can be adopted, more research is needed to answer many questions: Do armed teachers make children safer or does it put them at greater risk? What are the effects of open carry laws? When firearms are permitted on college campuses, are lives saved?
Yet Rosenberg faulted the gun lobby for its long-running “zero tolerance” policy against research.
“They told people, if you allow research, you’ll end up losing all your guns. It’s either the research or your guns. You can’t have both,” Rosenberg said. He said that perspective, is both wrong and “one of the really big obstacles in this whole area.”