Dan Morain

He’s a danger to the gun industry. Here’s why.

Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician at UC Davis Medical Center, shows the website of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, on a computer in the hospital in Sacramento on March 9.
Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician at UC Davis Medical Center, shows the website of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, on a computer in the hospital in Sacramento on March 9. The Associated Press

Garen Wintemute tells the story about the time the guy who owned a Southern California handgun factory told him to make sure his life insurance policy was fully paid up.

Bruce L. Jennings went on to inform Wintemute that he had set aside a large sum of money, maybe $500,000 to $1 million, to sue him and “make your life miserable.”

Jennings had good reason to dislike Wintemute. The UC Davis emergency room physician had spent years trying to fix the end results of gunshot wounds. In 1994, Wintemute wrote a book titled “The Ring of Fire,” about a half-dozen Los Angeles-area factories owned by Jennings’ family and friends that produced cheap handguns used in a huge numbers of crimes.

In part because of Wintemute’s research, the California Legislature later approved a bill that banned the type of handguns produced in those factories. All but one of the companies soon closed.

Wintemute wasn’t done. In 1999, he was a source for a Washington Post report that Jennings had an old domestic violence conviction, which meant he could not legally hold a license to sell firearms. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm revoked that license. At last word, a judge in Florida sentenced Jennings to 10 years in prison, though not related to guns. The charge: possessing and distributing child pornography.

“If a fight comes to me, I’m not going to back down,” Wintemute said the other day.

Wintemute doesn’t look like a slayer of gunslingers. He’s a bespectacled professor of 65, and speaks in the measured tones of the scientist he is. But for the gun industry, he may be the most dangerous scientist in America, more so starting on July 1.

That’s when the University of California will release the first of $5 million to fund the UC Davis Firearms Violence Research Center, located in an unmarked building on Stockton Avenue, across from the UC Davis Medical Center.

It’s Wintemute’s vision, implemented by the Legislature and led by then-Sen. Lois Wolk, a Davis Democrat who was termed out last year. The goal of the center is to let science drive gun legislation. What a concept.

Year after year, 30,000 people die by gun violence in the United States, by suicide, homicide or accident. Between 2005 and 2014, gun violence was responsible for 15,054 homicides in California, and 14,825 suicides.

Numbers of gun and vehicle-related deaths are roughly equal. Understandably, an entire agency within the federal government is devoted to auto safety. But in a sop to the NRA, Congress long has blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching the health impacts of gun violence.

That won’t change during Donald Trump’s administration. In 2016, the National Rifle Association spent $50 million to elect Trump and congressional Republicans. At the NRA convention last month, Trump proclaimed, “You have a true friend and champion in the White House.”

Trump surprised no one when he put out a budget that proposes to cut $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health, which had funded gun research during President Barack Obama’s tenure, including some of Wintemute’s research.

California could never make up for the fed’s failure. But in the fortress that is California, Gov. Jerry Brown and a majority of the legislators proclaimed that science matters.

The Legislature allocated the money in 2016. Soon afterward, UC President Janet Napolitano issued a statement lauding the new center. Then the bureaucracy took over. It took nearly a year of dickering before the UC Office of the President signed off on spending the money in ways that made sense. There, too, Wintemute eventually prevailed.

The squabbling concluded as the Bureau of State Audits was whacking UC for its fiscal management, and after Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a UC regent, placed a call questioning the funding delay.

Now Wintemute is thinking about the hard work ahead. He will head the center, as it should be, and he and other researchers from UC Davis, Berkeley, Irvine and UCLA will set about producing science related to guns and gun violence.

Wintemute hopes to assess the effectiveness of current laws, including the newly adopted requirement that people who buy ammunition have the legal right to own guns, and of California’s new gun violence restraining orders. At the end of 2016, courts had issued 86 such orders allowing authorities to take guns from people deemed to be dangers.

With Uncle Sam abdicating its research, more states should join California. There’s an attempt in New York where state Sen. Roxanne Persaud is carrying legislation that would earmark $2 million for firearms research.

In many states, legislators are testing the notion that more guns make us safer, following the concept pushed by NRA president Wayne LaPierre that the answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. It’s a clever line. In time, the UC Firearm Violence Research Center could prove that he’s wrong, or perhaps that he is right. Such is the nature of science. It’s based on facts, which, like Wintemute, are surprisingly tough.

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