Emergency room doctor Garen Wintemute was working an early morning shift at UC Davis Medical Center when he heard about the mass shooting in Orlando. Then the newscast reported that a man in Santa Monica who had weapons and explosive-making materials in his car was on his way to the L.A. Pride Festival.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, it’s organized,’” Wintemute said, “and then I ran to a computer to see if there was a gay pride event in Sacramento, because, if so, I would put the hospital on alert.”
There wasn’t a parade in Sacramento that day and it turned out that the man in Santa Monica wasn’t part of a larger attack. But it was a scary moment all the same for Wintemute, who’s seen firsthand how firearms can rip communities apart.
In the days after the deadliest mass shooting in American history, Democrats in both houses of Congress have called for more gun restrictions, but those efforts haven’t gained traction among Republicans. On a national level, firearm legislation appears stalled.
But California is moving to fill the void. On June 15, the state Legislature voted to spend $5 million to create a gun violence research center, which will work to understand the public health problem in the hopes of preventing deaths. It will be the first center of its kind in the country.
“The arc of this story has become: tragedy strikes again, Congress dithers and, as it happens, California steps up,” Wintemute said.
Research to aid prevention
Legislators approved Senate Bill 1006 just four days after the Orlando shooting, but the timing was coincidental, as the legislation had been in the works for months.
The funding for the California Firearm Violence Research Center is part of the 2016-2017 state budget and will be allocated over the next five years. Researchers will report their findings to the legislature, hopefully yielding gun laws that are backed by science, the bill’s author, Sen. Lois Wolk said.
“This comes from a belief that research and good data are really the basis of good policy,” she said. “I’m aware that (gun legislation) is an incredibly polarized discussion that often leads nowhere, but I think research might yield some more effective policies.”
Using science to save lives
For all the talk about firearm restrictions, we know surprisingly little about which policies really work, or what makes someone more likely to turn a gun on themselves or others.
Congress ended federal funding for firearm research in 1996, and Wintemute has consequently watched scientists abandon the field over the past two decades. Wintemute has taken to using his own money to fund his research — he has so far donated $1.3 million to the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, where he is the director.
Wolk, a Democrat who represents Davis, is lobbying for the new state research center to be located at UC Davis and for Wintemute to run it. His existing gun-violence research program is the only one in the Western U.S. and he is considered one of the few experts in the field.
The UC system will decide on the details of the center this summer so it can begin recruiting scientists from across the nation.
The center will practice applied science: gathering evidence that will inform prevention efforts.
Researchers will try to answer questions like “What, in a high-risk setting, allows some people not to be involved in firearm violence?” Wintemute said. “Are there risk factors and protective factors?”
Scientists will also try to unpack statistics. Over the last 15 years, the rate of fatal firearm violence — including both homicide and suicide — has remained constant nationwide, while the rate in California has declined more than 20 percent, Wintemute said.
But no one really knows why that is.
“What are we doing right?” Wintemute said. “Or is that we’re not making a mistake that’s being made elsewhere?”
The center will train post-doctoral researchers, such as epidemiologists or physicians, who want to study violence. And it will issue small grants to scientists across the country who are conducting firearm-violence prevention research.
Mass shootings spur action
Although mass shootings have occurred more often since 2011, they still account for less than 1 percent of gun-related deaths.
In the Orlando shooting, 49 people were killed. “That’s 49 too many,” Wintemute said, “but on average we lose more than 90 people a day to firearm violence. We just don’t hear about it as much, because it doesn’t occur in these horrific outbreaks.”
Suicide remains more common than homicide in California.
“There’s a myth that firearm violence is predominately a problem for young men of color, but firearm violence is — to a great extent and increasingly — an old white guy problem,” Wintemute said. “That’s the group that’s at greatest risk for suicide by far.”
Still, mass tragedies such as the Orlando shooting may be spurring a sea change in public opinion regarding gun restrictions.
“I think every time we experience one of these events now, the public’s tolerance for firearm violence goes down and people get angrier and more insistent that action be taken, and I think that’s going to pay off,” Wintemute said.
The tide, it seems, is already turning. Former Rep. Jay Dickey, the Congressman who authored the amendment that ended federally funded firearm research in 1996, has since had a change of heart. He supported the California bill to fund the research center.
“It is crazy for any state to expect its legislators to vote on gun violence legislation if they do not know that it will be effective in both protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners and reducing gun violence,” Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, said in a release.