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Dr. Garen Wintemute, the director of the Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California, Davis, in 2017. [AP/Rich Pedroncelli]

The Knowledge Gap

States Are Funding the Gun Violence Research the Feds Won’t

The trend reflects a growing willingness among legislators to invest in a better understanding of the issue.

Garen Wintemute estimates that from the time he started studying gun violence in the early 1980s until a few years ago, there were maybe 15 researchers in the entire country who were focused on the issue. “There weren’t nearly enough of us,” he said. “What’s 15 people up against a problem of this magnitude?”

But several years ago, Wintemute, an emergency medicine physician, got an opportunity to fill that gap. He was appointed the director of California’s gun violence research center, the first state-funded effort of its kind. The Firearm Violence Research Center opened at UC Davis in 2017, with $5 million in government dollars to use over five years.

Today, Wintemute heads a staff of about 20, which includes post docs, analysts, students, and administrators. “I have all these young smart people who are voting with their careers to take a real risk and work in a field where there’s no secure funding,” he said, referring to the lack of federal investment that has handicapped the field for more than two decades. “And they are aware of that, and they sign up nonetheless.”

California’s center heralded a growing push among states to fortify the long-neglected field of gun violence research. Last fall, New Jersey launched its own center. Legislative efforts to establish research hubs are now being considered in New York and Washington State.

“I think we’ve seen that the federal government can’t be a reliable partner in any kind of public health research” when it comes to gun violence, said David Frockt, a state senator in Washington. “We don’t have a national policy, so we’re going to have to do what we can at the state level.”

During the legislative session that began January 14, Frockt will seek $2 million in funding for a gun violence research program at the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center, which is part of the University of Washington in Seattle. The state has funded other gun violence research projects in the past, but the current budget proposal is the most extensive to date.

Fred Rivara, a pediatrician and injury prevention researcher at Harborview, said the money would go toward establishing a foundational understanding of gun violence. “For example, we don’t really know how many nonfatal firearm injuries there are either in the state of Washington or the United States in general,” he said. Unreliable CDC data has hobbled an accurate national count of shooting survivors, creating one of many irksome gaps in the statistical picture of gun violence. Rivara is also eager to understand the effects of extreme risk protection orders on suicide prevention, and to evaluate whether people who have been served with domestic violence restraining orders are actually relinquishing their guns.

This past fall, New Jersey appropriated $2 million for a research center dedicated to evaluating and generating data on gun violence. The center is headed by an interdisciplinary team of experts from fields including public health, criminal justice, psychology, social work, and trauma surgery. While still in its infancy, the center will eventually establish offices across three separate campuses of Rutgers University, its home institution.

In New York, Senator Roxanne Persaud is sponsoring legislation to create a gun violence research institute that would educate elected officials, evaluate existing laws and policies, and examine the causes and consequences of firearm violence — as well as potential solutions — in New York State.

Violent crime in New York City, once a defining aspect of the metropolis, has plunged to all-time lows. Yet some neighborhoods continue to be disproportionately affected by gunfire. Many shootings still occur in Brooklyn, where Persaud’s district lies. “Discussions on gun control are ongoing across the country, but I would like to see more research done,” she said via email. “Better policies may be created, and reached sooner, if we are well informed.”

Persaud introduced her bill for the first time last year. It advanced to committee in the Senate and the Assembly, then stalled. Now that Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, she says she’s optimistic the bill will go further.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence is also working with legislators in Oregon, New Mexico, and Hawaii to find ways to support firearm violence research. “We expect these centers to be in the mix going forward this year,” wrote Jason Phelps, a press aide for Giffords, in an email.

The mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, last February also spurred private groups to fund research. The national healthcare organization Kaiser Permanente is devoting $2 million to study how to incorporate violence prevention techniques into patient care, while the philanthropic Laura and John Arnold Foundation has pledged $20 million to the cause. And last year the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a SUNY public policy think tank, launched the Regional Gun Violence Consortium. Funded by a mix of grants and state funding, the consortium supports original research, in addition to aggregating and publishing existing data.

Perhaps the most dramatic shift came earlier this month, when a Massachusetts senator and New York congressperson reintroduced legislation that would endow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with $50 million annually for five years, beginning in 2020, to study the issue.

Such efforts suggest that the cloud that has long hung over gun violence research may be dissipating. In 1996, Congress passed the Dickey Amendment to bar the use of federal funding to “advocate or promote gun control.” Although the law didn’t explicitly ban research, the CDC largely stopped studying it. Since then, study of firearm violence has been severely underfunded compared with other public health issues with similar mortality rates, like falls, hypertension, and liver disease.

In California, Wintemute’s team recently got a boost when the governor unveiled his new budget proposal, which would continue funding for the UC-Davis center beyond its initial five years. To Wintemute, that’s a sign that lawmakers want to “make it possible to offer these people some security, that if they sign up to work on this important health problem, they’ll have a job.”

Throughout his 30-plus year career, Wintemute has experienced the ebb and flow that comes with studying such a contentious issue. For instance, worn down by the lack of funding in the 1990s, he decided to pay for some of it out of his own pocket.

Wintemute recalled two times he’s felt particularly optimistic about his work. The first was in the mid-1990s, when legislation passed that mandated background checks and waiting periods for handgun purchases.

The second time is right now.