Meet Garen Wintemute. ER doctor. Researcher. The NRA’s worst nightmare.

The 66 year-old spent months healing victims of the deadly Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia right out of medical residency in the early 1980s, before dedicating his career to studying firearm violence in the U.S. In 1994, he published a report called “Ring of Fire” about the proliferation of cheap handguns in California known as Saturday Night Specials (five of the six companies he profiled went out of business). He has been referred to as “the most dangerous scientist in America” to the gun industry.

Now, Wintemute runs the Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP) at UC Davis, which operates out of a nondescript building off the medical campus’ main artery, partly out of safety concerns. He and his team dig into data on firearm mortality to detect patterns and underlying causes in the hopes of identifying possible interventions.

Why is work like VPRP's so important? Because, like the young people demonstrating across the country with #MarchForOurLives this weekend in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, it can effect change.

The Public Health Crisis That Few Study

You’ve seen the headlines, but the numbers are still staggering. In 2017 alone, 11 mass shootings in the U.S. killed 117 and injured 587, while 2018 has already resulted in 18 school shootings. America’s rate of gun-related homicide is 20 times the combined rates of 22 other countries with similar wealth and population. And the mortality rate from guns per year in the U.S. is approximately on par with car accidents, and more than that of HIV and Parkinson’s-related causes.

“In order to understand a health problem with social dimensions, you need to study it,” says Wintemute. “For example, the decline in motor vehicle-related deaths over the last half of the twentieth century is one of the greatest public health successes of that century. But with regard to firearm violence, we chose to turn our backs.”

In fact, one research fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine ran the numbers and calculated that, taking into account the mortality rate for gun deaths compared to other leading causes of death in the U.S., research into the issue should have received $1.4 billion in funding between the years 2004-2014. It was short by more than a billion.


(Chart via The Trace, reprinted with permission.)

One reason for that is a piece of legislation passed in 1996 called the Dickey Amendment that prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to use funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” Jay Dickey, the Republican Congressman who led the effort, was a self-described “pointman for the NRA.” In the new budget Congress is looking to pass, the Dickey Amendment remains, but there’s now a provision that clarifies that the CDC is not prohibited from researching the effects of gun violence. The original legislation clearly had a cooling effect, since federal funding for gun studies fell off a cliff over the past two decades. Says Wintemute, “a statement that CDC’s not barred from research, which is clear from a close reading of the original language, accomplishes very little.”

But Wintemute hasn’t let such circumstances hold him down when it comes to his work. Not only has he spent more than $2 million of his own money to keep his research projects going, but the state of California and private organizations — such as The California Wellness Foundation, the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, the Fund for a Safer Future, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Langoleth Foundaion — have helped facilitate his studies. And they’ve gotten results.

California As a “Leading Laboratory”

The VPRP helped enact a “gun violence restraining order” in the state that lets family members and law enforcement petition a court to have firearms removed from a person who they believe is a danger to themselves and others. Wintemute believes that if this law had been passed in Florida, the Parkland shooting may have been prevented.

The UC Davis team also found that legal gun owners who had been convicted of a violent crime in the past were 15 times more likely to commit a future violent crime than law-abiding gun owners with clean records. California subsequently changed its policy and prohibited people from buying guns if they had a history of violent misdemeanor convictions. Researchers found a 30 percent decline in violence among those who were denied guns.

“There is no question that California is democracy's leading laboratory on this issue,” says Wintemute. “We’ve got a legislature that says, ‘What does the science tell us we should do?’ And when you tell them, they do it!”

What Funders Can Do

View scientists as start-ups. The newly-created University of California Firearm Violence Research Center — which Wintemute heads — launched last July with a five-year, $5 million commitment from the state. That allows Wintemute to hire smart investigators who know their positions are at least partly secure and their work valued. Likewise, any pilot program or research project worth investing in should be funded for a significant length of time, not just a year or two.

Believe in the impact. Large-scale studies often don’t get off the ground because they are costly and investors worry that nothing will come of them. “But now is the time to jump in because the climate really is changing, particularly here in California,” he says. The VPRP’s close collaboration with the California state legislature is rare, but can be a model for how other incubators can work around the country in order to bring about real progress.

Support young activists. The young people demonstrating for #MarchofOurLives, led by the Parkland survivors, have forced the gun control issue at least in Florida (where a bipartisan bill raised the age to buy firearms from 18 to 21). And those protesting today could be the change-makers of tomorrow. “What I'm really hoping is that they work really hard and a few years from now, the scientists among them show up here to work with us,” Wintemute says. “They need to be in this for a lifetime.”


Original contribution by Gabe Guarente, Content Manager at Giving Compass