Dan Morain

Dan Morain: A doctor digs deep in quest for ways to save lives

Dr. Garen Wintemute holds a copy of a study he did on gun shows.
Dr. Garen Wintemute holds a copy of a study he did on gun shows. The Associated Press

Dr. Garen Wintemute digs deep into his wallet to keep the lights on at a squat, nondescript building near the UC Davis Medical Center, understanding lives of people he will never know could depend on it.

The building is unmarked, intentionally so. Wintemute figures it’s best not to advertise where he and his staff conduct their research into the causes of gun violence and how to prevent it. Police have urged caution.

Though he is not wealthy, Wintemute earns a good salary as an emergency room physician and UC Davis medical school faculty member, and doesn’t have many expenses, unless you count his research. He has spent $1.3 million in the past seven or eight years to help pay for overhead and staff salaries.

“It is a labor of deep dedication,” he said. “This work is worth doing and worth supporting.”

Wintemute’s interest in gun violence prevention began with his work more than 30 years ago when, as a young ER doctor in Woodland, he saw what happens when bullets shred flesh.

In the mid-1990s, he wrote a book, “The Ring of Fire,” documenting how family-run Southern California gunmakers produced cheap handguns used in large numbers of crimes. His work led to legislation that ultimately forced the companies to shutter their operations.

Now he is researching whether gun owners convicted of drunken driving and other alcohol-related offenses are more likely to misuse their weapons. He hopes that could result in legislation, too.

He’s also looking into the effectiveness of the California Department of Justice program by which agents seize guns of people who legally bought them, but later were convicted of crimes, have domestic violence restraining orders against them, or have been hospitalized because of mental illness.

The National Institute of Justice helps fund that project. Private foundations have helped with other research. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the arm of the federal government that should be most engaged in violence prevention research, is all but silent, the result of a decision first made 20 years ago by the people who run Congress, the ones who cast the votes and the lobbyists who often control those votes.

In April 1996, at the behest of the National Rifle Association, then Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, carried what came to be known as the Dickey Amendment. It decrees that the Centers for Disease Control cannot fund research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The provision since has been extended to the National Institutes of Health.

Chris Cox, executive director of the lobbying arm of National Rifle Association, defends the restriction, writing recently in Politico that the CDC-funded research was biased. The NRA-backed restrictions have had their intended effect. Although 30,000 people a year die from gunshots, little research gets funded.

“All of us have lived project to project,” Wintemute said of the few researchers who focus on gun violence prevention. “People have waited for Congress to step up and that is just not going to happen.”

In 2013, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Barack Obama called for research into gun violence. But faced with congressional opposition, the CDC and NIH remain hesitant to fund the sort of research Wintemute conducts.

Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, has an answer: If Congress won’t do its job by funding research into the scourge of gun violence, California should. She has introduced a bill to create a firearms violence research center overseen by the University of California.

Wolk has a powerful ally, Dickey, who in recent years has been seeking redemption for having carried the amendment named for him. The retired congressman and Dr. Mark Rosenberg have signed a letter embracing Wolk’s legislation.

In April 1996, Rosenberg was a top official with the Centers for Disease Control, and was at the hearing when Dickey pushed for the amendment. They since have become friends. Researchers weren’t anti-gun, Rosenberg said by phone. Rather, they sought answers to basic questions: What are the causes of firearm violence, what can prevent it, and how might such changes be implemented?

“The NRA thought the research was a threat to their business, and their business was selling guns,” Rosenberg said.

Wolk intends to seek an appropriation of perhaps $2 million a year for five years. It’d be a speck in a $172 billion budget. If legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown agree – and there’s no good reason to oppose it – UC campuses would compete for the money. Wolk hopes it will go to people who toil in the unmarked building near the UC Davis Medical Center. Lives could depend on it.