A Multimillion Dollar Taxpayer-Funded Gun Research Center Finally Finds a Home

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What the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center is expected to accomplish.

By Francie Diep

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(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Just days after the nation’s deadliest mass shooting — at June’s Pulse Nightclub in Orlando—California’s state legislature voted to fund what would be the first publicly chartered center for firearm research in the country. The timing was a coincidence, but an apt one. And since then, progress has been steady.

This week, the University of California announced where the center will be headquartered: on a UC medical-school campus in the state capitol. It will be led by Garen Wintemute, a UC–Davis public-health expert who’s famous for going undercover at gun shows for his research, and for donating more than $1 million of his personal wealth to studies on firearm violence. The University of California Firearm Violence Research Center will receive $5 million in taxpayer funds over the next five years.

The center is unique because comparatively few public dollars have gone toward answering such questions as “Which laws are associated with fewer gun deaths?” Some federal grants exist, but they’re dwarfed by the funding that goes to other health topics, gun-violence researchers argue. “For pretty much every other public health problem, there’s very substantial federal funding,” Wintemute says. “The National Institutes of Health has entire institutes devoted to, let’s say, heart, lung, and blood disease. But there’s nothing like that level of commitment, federally, to research on violence in general, let alone firearm violence.”

“For pretty much every other public health problem, there’s very substantial federal funding.”

Requests for funding for firearm research are typically politically difficult to pass. But after a mass shooting by terrorists in San Bernardino, California, lawmakers introduced numerous gun-control bills, passing a package of them in June.

A plan is due to the University of California’s president in October outlining exactly what the Firearm Violence Research Center will study. Meanwhile, Wintemute is seeking private donors to augment the state’s appropriation. He also has some ideas for studies that will be feasible for the center’s budget. Specifically, he wants to see how California’s background check law has affected gun deaths, and to examine the characteristics of families who are more or less likely to fall victim to firearm violence.

One big question he’s interested in: why California’s rates of firearm deaths have fallen since 2000, while they’ve stayed steady nationwide.

“Its focus will be on California,” Wintemute says, “but if we find answers here that are of interest to others, we would be sure to make those answers widely available.”

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