Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed into law SB 877, which requires the state Public Health department to collect information on the circumstances surrounding any death caused by physical force or power against someone, including homicides and suicides.
This year’s state budget also includes funding for the establishment of a California Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California at Davis. No opening date is yet set but supporters say it could open as early as the beginning of next year.
Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who authored SB 877 and supported efforts to establish the firearm violence research center, said the data will help policy makers make better decisions about how to prevent violence.
But gun advocates say they fear the research will be biased and will lead to harassment of responsible gun owners.
While violent crime has declined dramatically over the past 30 years, the Legislature’s move comes against a backdrop of constant reports of gun violence in the news, including shootings at schools and on city streets.
Pan, a pediatrician, said an average of 16 people die violently in California each day. “This is something that’s a significant issue that impacts a lot of people,” he said. “Think about how many mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, sons and other family members are impacted every time someone dies.”
He said that by analyzing the data, steps may be taken to reduce those violent deaths in the same way that research has led to fewer deaths from car accidents. Studies done on motor vehicle fatalities led to safety belts, air bags and other ways to make car travel safer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider violence to be a public health issue. More than 56,000 Americans died because of homicide or suicide in 2011. Violent deaths cost $107 billion in medical care and lost productivity each year.
From 2005-2010, California participated in the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System but the state wasn’t able to continue because of difficulty providing required law enforcement and crime lab records. The main problems in providing the information were a lack of funding as well as concerns about privacy, the size of the state and California’s decentralized government, according to a legislative analysis.
Pan says the state’s new violent death database is designed to fit with the national one and he hopes the state will eventually reconnect with it. He feels confident the state will be able to find the needed funding. “There’s some funding that might be available from grants,” Pan said. “People recognize we need to have data and research to inform our policies.”
Shaun Rundle, legislative and regional affairs representative for the California Peace Officers Association, questioned the worth of the public health department managing the data when law enforcement agencies already report data about violent deaths to the state Department of Justice. He worried that this will add a burden to law enforcement officers. “They’re spending half their day filling out reports,” he said.
Pan said his bill does not require data collection, just data compilation. The data from the state Department of Justice has not been linked with Public Health department data such as death certificates. He said death certificates alone do not provide enough information to analyze because they only give information about the victim, not the circumstances that led up to the death.
Kris Calvin, chief executive officer of the American Academy of Pediatrics in California, believes the data will help policy makers determine what the most important factors are in violent deaths. For example, researchers can determine how many deaths are linked to substance abuse, how many had to do with easy access to guns, not storing guns properly.
“It’s just gathering information in a more robust way than we are currently gathering it,” she said.
Robert Gould, M.D., president of the San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility said he hopes the research could lead to legislation that puts limits on ammunition and the capability of firearms. “We have a position of thoughtful control over guns and being able to reduce carnage that is associated with guns,” he said.
The Firearms Policy Coalition opposed the creation of the UC Davis gun violence research center because of concerns about it will lead to gun control. In a statement submitted to the Legislature, the coalition questioned why the center isn’t charged with researching the effect of an armed citizenry on crime prevention. The coalition said the point of the research center seems to be “to report back with new ways to harass and burden law abiding citizens who contribute positively to the public good by being responsible gun owners.”
Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, which also opposes the UC Davis gun violence research center, raises concerns about public health inquiries into gun violence in an article on its website. “Using a gun isn’t a disease and people, not weapons, are agents of harm,” said Robert B. Young, M.D. in the article.
“Why Jose shot Diego is not a medical issue,” said Arthur Przebinda, M.D., the social media director for Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership. “It’s a criminological, sociological issue. Doctors are supposed to mend bones and make sure Diego goes home alive.”
Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, an advocate for the research center, said the group will not come to conclusions before it does research.
“The point of the center would be to take a look at what works and what doesn’t,” she said. “The results will be tested by the fact that others are looking at the same issue. Everything is open, published and transparent. It gets out of the realm of the purely ideological and allows for the policies that come about to be effective.”