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California Launches First State-Funded Gun Violence Research Center


Let's talk about those protests. One of them, of course, was here in Washington, D.C., calling for more gun control. Some of the people there were survivors of the shooting last month at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. And there were others who had been affected by gun violence in other ways like Maya Middleton (ph). She's a 16-year-old from Chicago who remembered a man confronting her while she was shopping.


MAYA MIDDLETON: He pulls out this silver pistol and points it in my face and said these words that to this day haunt me and give me nightmares. He said, if you said anything, I will find you.

GREENE: Wow. While the speakers mixed these personal stories with a call to action to vote and to stay engaged, Cameron Kasky, a Stoneman Douglas student who helped organize the rally, put it like this.


CAMERON KASKY: We must educate ourselves and start conversations that keep our country moving forward. And we will.

GREENE: But for Americans who want to educate themselves about guns, there's a roadblock. Solid, basic data about gun violence is hard to come by. For decades, research has been stifled nationally. But a growing number of states is trying to see what they can do. And NPR's Nathan Rott visited the first state-funded gun violence research center. It's in California.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: You'd have a hard time finding the Firearm Violence Research Center (ph) without a good set of directions. There's no sign or banner for it, no dot on a map. There's not even a name on the front door.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There you go. Hi, come on in.


ROTT: Hey.

GAREN WINTEMUTE: Man with the microphone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do you want a cup of coffee?

ROTT: All of this caution is by design, as is the location just off campus from a hospital in Sacramento.

WINTEMUTE: Because we're considered sort of a risk to the people around us, so they put us by ourselves.

ROTT: Dr. Garen Wintemute is the director of this research center. Tall and wiry with oval-shaped glasses and a close-shaved head, he looks every bit the emergency room physician that he is when he's at the hospital across the street. The two jobs are directly related, Wintemute says. He can treat a person who suffered a gunshot wound in the ER. But most people who die from gunshot wounds, he says, die where they're shot.

WINTEMUTE: Doesn't matter how good we ER docs are, how good the trauma surgeons are, those people are dead. And for me, as a clinician, to have the maximum impact on mortality from firearm violence, I need to help keep people from getting shot in the first place.

ROTT: And for decades, he has aimed to do just that by researching, aggregating and documenting the who, what, when, where, why and how of gun violence. Wintemute calls it preventative work.

WINTEMUTE: Doing science that will underlay smart policymaking here in California first.

ROTT: And now he's got more money behind him. Lawmakers here in California designated $5 million to this research center to be spent over five years. The goal was to help fill in some of the vacuum that's existed in the field of gun research since the mid-'90s. That's when Congress, pushed by the National Rifle Association, passed legislation barring federal agencies from using money to advocate or promote gun control. It essentially stopped gun research. Congress clarified that last week, saying federal agencies can conduct research on gun violence. But Wintemute and others doubt anything will change. Enter states.

JOANN DOWNEY: We're taking action on a state level to fill that gap.

ROTT: Joann Downey is a Democratic state assemblywoman in New Jersey. She's co-sponsored a bill inspired by California to fund a similar research center at Rutgers University. New York is also considering something similar.

DOWNEY: To legislate responsibly on a topic like this or any topic, you know you need knowledge, data, insight and more research. So we're lacking that now when it comes to gun violence research.

ROTT: But there is a question underlying this whole new state-centered movement. In an era of fake news claims, how will any research, conducted in mostly blue states, be received by a wider public? Sam Paredes, the executive director of Gun Owners of California, says he's all for research. He supports the idea of gathering it, and he thinks there are solutions that need to be looked at to address gun violence. But he says he will be skeptical of any research that comes from California's research center, which he views as biased.

SAM PAREDES: Seems like a kangaroo court. I can predict what the research is going to produce.

ROTT: And his prediction is that the research will favor more gun control, infringing, he says, on people's Second Amendment rights. Garen Wintemute, the director of the research center, has heard this before.

WINTEMUTE: I get accused a lot of being an anti-gun zealot. And actually, that's an exact phrase that gets used from time to time.

ROTT: But he says he expects some of their research to tick off gun control groups, too. He points to a study he did previously about the gun show loophole, a term used to describe secondary sales of guns where background checks aren't required. Many lawmakers and anti-gun violence groups have called for a closure of that loophole.

WINTEMUTE: And my research said that would be a waste of time.

ROTT: The research the center is currently doing is, in some cases, less controversial. They're doing a demography of gun violence in California, documenting where it happens and to whom. They're also looking at the effectiveness of gun violence restraining orders, which growing numbers of states have started to implement. Their findings, Wintemute says, should stand on their own. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MADE OF OAK'S "BLUE ZIPPER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.

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