With his crisp blue suit and wire-framed spectacles, Garen Wintemute hardly looked frightening as he stepped to the podium last month to address a conference on pediatric emergency medicine in San Francisco, California. But his presence there made the organizers nervous.
Wintemute, an emergency-department doctor, is better known as the director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California (UC), Davis. As such, he has published dozens of papers on the effects of guns in the United States, where widespread gun ownership and loose laws make it easy for criminals and potentially violent people to obtain firearms. Wintemute has pushed the bounds of research, going undercover into gun shows with a hidden camera to document how people often sidestep the law when purchasing weapons. He has also worked with California lawmakers on crafting gun policy and helped to drive a group of gun-making companies out of business.
All this made Wintemute a potentially risky speaker for the conference funder, a branch of the US Department of Health and Human Services, which is barred by law from funding any activities that advocate or promote gun control. The meeting organizers had told Wintemute to stick to facts and avoid any mention of policies. But with the nation still reeling from the murder of 20 children and 6 educators, who were shot in their school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December, the conference organizers were not sure what Wintemute would say.
He stuck to the facts, but also managed to make clear how he feels about the funding prohibition, which has effectively killed off most research on gun violence. “We don't have a labor force,” Wintemute told the assembled doctors.
That has led to a striking imbalance in US medical research. Firearms accounted for more than 31,000 deaths in the United States in 2011 (see 'Gun deaths'). But fewer than 20 academics in the country study gun violence, and most of them are economists, criminologists or sociologists. Wintemute is one of just a few public-health experts devoted to this research, which he has funded through a mixture of grants and nearly US$1 million of personal money.
His undercover gun-show tactics have led him into situations where he feared for his safety, and they have also raised protests from some gun-rights advocates, who charge that Wintemute is more a biased campaigner than a researcher.
But even a few of his ideological opponents praise Wintemute's work. “Garen is one of the very best in terms of his research skills,” says David Kopel, the research director at the Independence Institute in Denver, Colorado, a think tank that supports gun-owners' rights.
And Wintemute, who is 61, makes no apologies for his passion or his methods. “I believe just as strongly as I can articulate in the value of free inquiry,” he says, “especially when the stakes are so high — when so many people are dying through no fault of their own; when so much of the country simply turns its back on this problem.”