The California Legislature’ recent decision to establish a firearms research center in the University of California system has stimulated the expected response: Public health and gun control advocates are heartened and Second Amendment stalwarts are up in arms. But both sides profess to be in accord on one point: The need for reliable data on guns. Where they differ, of course, is on the definition of reliable data.
U.S. research on the impacts of firearm-related violence had long been the province of the Centers for Disease Control, but gun rights advocates—mainly the National Rifle Association—successfully lobbied Congress to block the CDC from such research in the 1990s after it became clear that at least some of the findings might link easy access to firearms to increased fatalities. The ban has remained in effect despite periodic attempts to overturn it, most recently last year, when the U.S. House of Representatives killed an amendment that would have allowed the CDC to resume its research.
Now “California is demonstrating it’s willing to go where the federal government can’t or won’t go,” says UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring.
He likens the state’s move to jack up its own firearms research to a similar California action after the federal government restricted research using human stem cells in the 1990s. California voters in 20014 approved Proposition 71, authorizing $3 billion to establish the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a program dedicated to cutting-edge stem cell studies and applications.
“We’re not supposed to research gun violence—or as far as the NRA is concerned, even discuss it. (But) more people were killed in the United States by guns than drug overdoses, AIDS, terrorism and war combined.”
But gun rights proponents are leery of firearms research, whether it’s conducted under the auspices of the federal government or a state such as California.
Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Institute for Legislative Action, the political lobbying arm of the NRA, says the organization supports gun research—but that federal studies have been inherently biased toward limiting citizen access to firearms and undermining the Second Amendment. “This (California) bill is similar to calls for restoring funding back to the CDC,” Hunter says, “and like the CDC studies, it has a political agenda. The research the CDC did in the 1990s deliberately left out a number of studies that went counter to the gun control narrative. We don’t need to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on research that will be deliberately skewed toward promoting gun control.”
Hunter insists that the NRA supports firearms research as long as it is comprehensive.
“There’s a lot missing in gun research, and the NRA recognizes this,” Hunter says. “But how about some studies on successful defensive gun uses per year? Or where are the places criminals actually get firearms? Or the motivations, which include a sense of security, that compels people to purchase guns? That’s always missing from the studies.”
But UC Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon says more research could produce at least some findings that even the NRA might welcome.
And although he acknowledges that a healthy skepticism of government is sometimes justified, he adds that gun advocates “may be opposing research because they lack confidence in their own beliefs. The fact is, there has been a steady drop in violent crime since the 1990s, and that’s despite liberalized gun laws in many jurisdictions. The widespread shoot-outs that gun control advocates warned about following eased gun restrictions haven’t happened, despite some outliers like Chicago in recent years. So it could be that ambitious research wouldn’t necessarily gore the ox of gun rights advocates. More research can show us the things that could make a difference, and those that won’t.”
The California legislation, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis, will devote $5 million over five years toward gun violence studies, providing at least a partial remedy to the shortfall in federal research. “Our researchers at the University of California are tops in the nation, and if Congress refuses to act responsibly, we need to step up and fill the void,” Wolk said.
While the research may involve researchers on several UC campuses, it likely will be based out of the existing Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis.
“In working with (the Davis program), we focused on getting past the headlines into the driving issues,” says Craig Reynolds, a spokesperson for Wolk. He added that Garen Wintemute, the emergency room physician who is director of Davis program, is in the middle of a research project looking at the connection between alcoholism and firearm violence. “Intuitively, most people feel alcoholics shouldn’t have guns—but is that justified? We need to know. Other things that might warrant investigation include whether communities are safer with more or fewer concealed weapons carriers, and suicide rates and gun availability. There are just so many areas where we need reliable data.”
Such inquiries are likely to make a difference, says Simon.
“California is a big place, so data generated here will carry a lot of weight,” he says. “But in the end, national data is best. That’s what we really need.”
Still, it’s not as though the CDC has been utterly passive on the issue.
“The CDC publishes vital statistics on violent death, and it has continued its research in that area,” says Berkeley Law’s Zimring. “The ban on gun research has distorted its research portfolio, but that doesn’t mean it has been completely stymied. To a real degree they’ve tiptoed up to the line of the ban, studying such things as youth violence prevention. While it isn’t firearms violence research per se, it certainly touches on some aspects of firearm-related violence.”
While the push-and-pull on gun violence research continues, actual gun control measures are also in flux. As Simon notes, many states have loosened some gun regulations, particularly when it comes to concealed handgun permits. At the same time, the federal government continues to pursue restrictions—but not through Congress, where any meaningful restrictive proposal is essentially DOA.
“Efforts have basically moved to the executive and administrative arenas,” Zimring says.
Under President Obama, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is finalizing a rule requiring background checks for anyone buying certain types of weapons through trusts or corporations; the Attorney General’s office is pushing states to track the criminal and mental health histories of gun buyers; and the FBI is authorizing the hiring of 230 new staffers to process background checks 24/7 and notify local authorities when an unauthorized person attempts to buy a firearm. Additionally, Obama has directed the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Justice to investigate “smart” gun and advanced gun-safety technology.
That’s significant, of course, but it seems decidedly piecemeal to gun control advocates, particularly if they work in the public health sector. John Swartzberg,a clinical professor emeritus for the Berkeley School of Public Health, considers gun violence a public safety crisis of almost unprecedented scope.
“On an average year, we have between 15 to 30 thousand deaths associated with influenza,” says Swartzberg. “But the annual statistics for gun-related deaths exceed that. So how do we respond with influenza? We dedicate billions to vaccinations, to therapeutics, to research. It’s the same with deaths from vehicular accidents. We devote a tremendous amount of money to developing safer cars and maintaining our roads. But we’re not supposed to research gun violence—or as far as the NRA is concerned, even discuss it. Between 2001 and 2013, more people were killed in the United States by guns than drug overdoses, AIDS, terrorism and war combined. So things have to change.”
“We need a lot more information, and research doesn’t automatically mean your side is going to lose.”
While mass killings naturally generate the most outrage, it’s the quotidian stream of “average” shootings that account for most of the carnage, says Amanda Naprawa, an attorney and UC Berkeley alum who blogs for Berkeley Wellness, a website sponsored by Berkeley’s School of Public Health. The clerk shot in a convenience store, the wife gun downed by a drunken spouse, the road rage victim, the guy cleaning his rifle who didn’t know it was loaded. While these killings are barely noticeable when compared to Orlando, Sandy Hook, Charleston, and Columbine, they’re the true heart of the problem.
“We know the statistics, and they’re appalling,” says Naprawa. “Each year on average, 32,514 people are killed by guns in the U.S., and an additional 75,962 are wounded. Worse, more than 17,000 children are shot by guns each year. And in 2015 in America, someone was shot by a toddler—a toddler—an average of once a week. But if we have good statistics, we mostly have anecdotal information on why it’s happening and how to deal with it.
“Yes, states with structured gun controls tend to have less violence. But we need a lot more information, and research doesn’t automatically mean your side is going to lose. What’s maddening is that if there’s an outbreak of Zika, or Ebola, or anything else, you get this immediate reaction. If the CDC isn’t going all out on research, people claim they’re falling down on the job. But gun violence is happening every second, and they can’t even study it. It’s crazy.”