The UC Davis Medical Center will house the nation’s first state-funded firearm violence research center, an effort backed by health organizations and opposed by gun rights advocates.
The University of California Firearm Violence Research Center will be under the direction of Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician, professor, researcher and expert on firearm violence. The Sacramento-based center will build on his work with the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, established in 1989.
“This is an opportunity that anybody in my shoes would wait a lifetime for,” said Wintemute, who has researched gun violence since the early 1980s. “What makes it a model is that the Legislature and the governor stepped up and said California is going to do something about this.”
The new center is funded by a $5 million, five-year state grant after Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, lobbied for the center this year. Wolk’s proposal eventually became part of the budget package passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in June.
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Wolk’s proposal was backed by the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics, California. Opponents included the Firearms Policy Coalition, which said in a statement to the Legislature that “the program is one-sided and the ‘research’ is to be used to guide the Legislature on gun control, euphemistically called ‘firearms violence prevention.’ ”
The center’s first project: a survey that looks at who owns guns, why they own them and how they use firearms. Wintemute said a survey of its kind hasn’t been conducted since the mid-1970s.
The University of California Firearm Violence Research Center will begin with about eight staff members. Wintemute said two more faculty and some analysts will join the team as a result of the new funding. He expects graduate and undergraduate students will join researchers in the future.
The center is seeking additional space at the medical center to accommodate the growth.
UC President Janet Napolitano cited Wintemute’s research as the reason for selecting UC Davis to lead the project.
Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have cited UC Davis research on gun ownership and misdemeanor violence, Wintemute said. The research showed that denying guns to people with violent misdemeanors decreased gun violence.
Gun Owners of California opposed the center’s creation. “We lobbied. We talked to members of the Legislature. I testified at every committee hearing,” said the group’s executive director, Sam Paredes. “We are fighting entrenched people who do not like guns and want to find any justification to control guns.”
Paredes said he wasn’t surprised to see UC Davis and Wintemute had been selected to lead the center. He said the research team has never shown firearm ownership in a positive light.
“We aren’t at all against research,” Paredes said. “We are concerned when research is done with a predetermined outcome and when research is so obviously colored in one direction.”
Wintemute said some people have raised concerns about the researchers’ access to data, while others have been afraid the research might result in changes to public policy.
“We are driven by data, not by a policy agenda,” Wintemute said. “We get in trouble with advocates on both sides.”
An advisory board that includes experts, elected officials, law enforcement and scholars will oversee the new center. Napolitano directed Wintemute and his research group to draw up a plan to propose and prioritize projects, suggest ways to sustain research through donations and establish an annual operating budget by Oct. 15.
“If we do a good job and spend the money wisely and the information is useful, I hope the Legislature would see fit to fund the center (after the grant ends),” Wintemute said. “In the end, if we aren’t doing a good job, we shouldn’t continue.”