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California to fund first public research center on gun violence in the United States
M&R Glasgow/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

California to fund first public research center on gun violence in the United States

Four days after a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, left 49 people dead and 53 injured, California’s state legislature voted yesterday to establish a $5-million firearm violence research center within the University of California (UC)—the first such publicly charted center in the country.

“Acts of firearm violence like Sunday’s horrific mass shooting in Orlando leave us searching for answers. California made finding those answers a priority, taking leadership once again where Congress has failed,” said state Democratic Senator Lois Wolk, who had proposed separate legislation earlier this year that was folded into a $170-billion budget bill approved this week by the legislature.

The vote follows Wednesday’s 15-hour filibuster in the U.S. Senate, in which Democrats demanded tighter regulations on gun purchases. That move has set the stage for votes Monday on four gun-related amendments to a spending bill that funds the Justice Department and several other federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and NASA. The deep partisan split over the gun measures could doom the bill, say some observers, and raise new obstacles to congressional approval of any 2017 spending bills.

Epidemiologist Garen Wintemute, who studies firearm violence at UC Davis, says it is “coincidental” that the state legislature vote occurred so soon after the massacre in Orlando. The center grew out of conversations he had last fall with Wolk, he explained, and the timetable for approving a state budget—not the deadly shootings—determined when the vote took place. Still, he says the new research center provides “a very stark example” for Congress, which has balked at President Barack Obama’s repeated requests for a $10-million investment into gun violence research.

In 2013 Obama directed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal agencies to study the causes and prevention of gun violence. That work had ground to a halt in 1996 after Congress banned the agency from any activity that would “advocate or promote gun control” and took away a tiny pot of money devoted to research on firearms. Former Representative Jay Dickey (R–AR), who championed the 1996 amendment, has publicly reversed his position and now lobbies for more research on gun violence.

Historically, funding for gun-related research has been so difficult to obtain that Wintemute has spent more than $1 million of his own funds to sustain his research. A budget of $1 million per year for 5 years precludes a large-scale study or extensive data collection, he says. But it could pay for a handful of researchers to examine California’s unique data set on statewide gun transfers and other firearm-related activities, he says. While the location of the new center is not “locked in” yet, Wintemute believes UC Davis is the most likely candidate.

One pressing question that even a small team could address is why California’s annual death rate from gun violence has dropped by roughly 20% since 2000 while the nationwide rate has not changed. “We don’t know why that is,” Wintemute says. “Are we doing something right? Or are we not doing something wrong that other [states] are?”

He hopes the $5 million will attract additional private and public funding and spur other states to take action. In the meantime, he says, this week’s vote means “California can say, well, we’re doing it.”