California Steps Into the Gun Research Void

American exceptionalism.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Homicide and unintentional injury are two major causes of premature death in the U.S. Firearms, which kill or injure about 100,000 Americans annually, are a key component of both. Yet, very little research has been done to find out how best to prevent gun violence.

For two decades, Congress, at the gun lobby’s behest, has blocked federal funding for such studies, mandating that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

What the gun lobby calls advocacy, others call “science.” More than 2,000 doctors have signed a petition urging Congress to treat gun violence like any other threat to public health, and end the ban on federally funded research. Still Congress resists.

Into this void steps California State Senator Lois Wolk, who has proposed establishing a gun violence research institute in the University of California system. It would be a very modest commitment, drawing as little as $1 million per year from the state’s proposed $122.6 billion budget, and it could ultimately help the state save money by reducing firearm-related hospitalizations.

It would also be a start in providing, as Wolk’s bill puts it, “the scientific evidence on which sound firearm violence prevention policies and programs can be based.”

Already, the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis, led by Garen Wintemute, an emergency medicine doctor, has done valuable research that has revealed, for example, how easy it is for criminals to obtain firearms at gun shows and the connection between alcohol abuse and gun violence.

Wintemute has gotten support for his group’s work from private foundations, individual donors and even his own pocket -- a total of $1.7 million for this year, he said. Researchers at other institutions, including Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University, have also contributed to understanding gun violence. Yet the lack of federal funds and perennially incomplete federal data make the job harder. The National Cancer Institute, by contrast, has an annual budget of more than $5 billion to fund the search for cures.

The gun lobby won’t always like where the science leads, of course. But neither will advocates of gun control. Research has found, for example, that the 1990s federal ban on assault weapons had little impact on homicides.

But that’s precisely the point: Peer-reviewed research can reveal which approaches are most likely to reduce death and injury. With facts in hand, policy makers can figure out how to protect lives. It’s the only way a polarized nation can reduce gun violence by consensus. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.