Roughly 12 years ago at a hotel in Iowa, Stephen Teret thought he was going to be shot. The pioneering public health scientist from Johns Hopkins University was in town to host a panel discussion on gun violence research with two other experts. It was a “very, very angry crowd,” he remembers. “It didn’t take a psychiatrist to know that they were very hostile.” Suddenly, just as the event was hitting its stride, the room plunged into total darkness. Disoriented, Teret turned to his fellow panelists. They were taking cover under a table, anticipating the worst.
“I thought, maybe that’s the smart thing to do,” Teret says. “Maybe I should get under the table.” But as he moved to join them, the lights flickered back on. The culprit was not a gunman. Instead, an audience member in the packed room had accidentally brushed against a light switch.
Years later, Teret can laugh at the incident, but it wasn’t the last time he’s feared for his life on account of his work. Threats and harassment are part of the job for leading gun violence researchers in the United States, who, just by studying firearms, expose themselves to one of the most vitriolic national debates. Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, once received an explicit death threat from the owner of one of the largest handgun manufacturers in the country. The businessman was angry that Wintemute’s research on cheap, “Saturday night special” handguns had helped lead the state of California to ban their production. Dr. Daniel Webster, who heads the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, recently told an Associated Press reporter about an anonymous,“very specific” threat he received by email and voice mail as he was about to speak at a gun violence summit.
“I recognize that I’m a very public figure, and that there are people who are literally obsessed with the gun issue and probably in some very twisted way could justify doing something to me,” Webster says. “But that’s not going to stop me. I’m doing what I’m going to do.”
They’ll ask about my family, things like that. About how I protect myself, details about my home. Those emails are ignored. I just hit delete.”
To be sure, death threats are relatively rare, but harassment is not. When major media outlets cover their studies, gun violence researchers tell The Trace, their inboxes are flooded with emails from irate readers, many of whom are convinced that the goal of the research is to confiscate privately-owned firearms. “Most of it is just really nasty words,” Webster says. “That I’m a low-life, that I’m peddling lies, that I’m a puppet.” Sometimes it can get more pointed, and more menacing. “They’ll ask about my family, things like that,” says Dr. Charles Branas, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “About how I protect myself, details about my home. Those emails are ignored. I just hit delete.” Occasionally, it’s his job that is threatened, as gun rights advocates contact his college’s administrators and demand that he be reviewed or dismissed.
Of course, negative attention doesn’t always come from within the pro-gun ranks. About seven years ago, Wintemute published several papers that challenged the efficacy of closing the “gun show loophole” by finding that gun show purchases weren’t a major problem in the context of violence prevention. Because many advocacy groups had been campaigning to regulate those private sales, Wintemute held a conference call to let them know about the research results. “There was a great deal of anger on that phone call,” he says. “There are advocates who haven’t spoken to me since.” At two other points over the course of his career, Wintemute says, he was offered work by gun safety advocacy groups who wanted his team to conduct biased studies. Both times, Wintemute turned them down.
“We’ve had pretty frosty relationships with those advocacy groups ever since,” he says. “But we don’t conduct research just to align with a certain policy. That’s not doing serious science.”
Researchers say they do their best to foster dialogue with critics. “I don’t know what comes over me, but occasionally I will respond,” Webster says. In 2014, he replied to an email from a man who criticized his public statements as Maryland considered more gun restrictions. The exchange went well enough for the man to forward Webster’s responses to other members of his gun club. “The biggest mistake we can make is to refuse to talk to those people who disagree with us,” Teret says. “When I talk to those people, I always walk away having learned something, which has great value to me.”
Ultimately, the constant contentiousness that gun violence researchers face is one of the challenges (along with a dearth of funding) that can discourages up-and-coming scientists from focusing on the subject. “When I first started researching guns, my husband and I actually had a really serious conversation about whether I really wanted to get into that,” says Cassandra Crifasi, a researcher with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Crifasi has only been on faculty at Hopkins for a year, and so far she’s has not experienced the more personal threats that many of her colleagues have received. But she has already encountered angry audience members at some of her public presentations, nasty blog posts written about her research, and online commenters who claim her findings have been fabricated.
Older colleagues had prepared her for those reactions to her work. But her own relationship with firearms has made the hostility vexing.
“It’s particularly frustrating for me because both my husband and I are gun owners,” Crifasi says. “So when I’m giving a talk on something that’s very neutral, and I’m really just laying out the evidence for my findings, it’s discouraging to have somebody say, ‘Well obviously you hate guns and you want to take them away from me, so I’m not going to listen to what you have to say.’ That to me is the most frustrating thing.”