Another voice: On gun violence research, California sets an example for the nation

Published Aug. 23, 2017

California has never been reluctant to take the lead on critical issues facing the nation. When federal funding was cut off for embryonic stem cell research, it created its own state program. It adopted standards for vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency that have been emulated by other states, and it has doubled down on a commitment to climate change policy in the face of disinterest, if not outright hostility, from the Trump administration. But perhaps nothing is more welcome than California's decision to advance the science of gun violence prevention with the establishment of the country's first publicly funded research center.

The Firearm Violence Research Center, launched last month at the University of California at Davis with a $5 million appropriation from the state, aims to find effective ways to prevent firearm violence through scientific investigation and understanding. Located at the university's Sacramento campus, the research institute will augment the work of Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician and nationally recognized expert on the epidemiology of firearm violence who serves as its director.

California's decision to be at the forefront of research on gun violence as a public health issue stands in contrast to the dismal abdication of the federal government. Legislation passed by Congress in 1996 barring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from spending any funds "to advocate or promote gun control" made the agency skittish about conducting research. Scientific investigation has been key in devising lifesaving solutions to other public health issues, such as automobile safety and swimming pool safety, so the dearth of research into firearms, a leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 65, is intolerable.

Indeed, it is instructive that the lawmaker who successfully carried the National Rifle Association's water in getting the restrictive rider through Congress eventually came to have a change of heart. The late Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas whose amendment led to the scarcity of gun research, joined forces with Mark Rosenberg, former director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, to advocate federally funded gun research as well as champion — in the face of predictable opposition from the gun lobby — the establishment of California's center.

Wintemute stressed that the center is not about validating predetermined political agendas but rather, as he told the Los Angeles Times, "understanding the problem of firearm violence that cuts across pro-gun and anti-gun boundaries." In wanting to confront the problem of gun violence with sound data about causes, consequences and effective solutions, California once again sets a good example.