In June 1987, Wintemute published a paper called 'When children shoot children: 88 unintended deaths in California'. He reported that in 36% of these cases, the shooters didn't think that the gun was loaded or was real, or they were too young to tell the difference. Forty per cent of the childrens' fatal injuries were self-inflicted, including separate incidents in which a 5-year-old boy and a 2-year-old boy, using .38-caliber revolvers — one found under a pillow, the other in his parents' bedroom — each shot himself in the head.
To illustrate one facet of the problem, Wintemute borrowed several of the guns used in the shootings from the Sacramento medical examiner. He then bought toy lookalikes, mounted the paired guns on a piece of plywood and, when the paper was published, called a press conference. Few of the reporters who attended could tell the toy guns from the real ones. His work and other events that year focused scrutiny on toy guns, and in December, toy retailers began to pull realistic-looking toy guns from their shelves. The next year, California banned their sale and manufacture.
Wintemute was increasingly convinced that gun manufacturing was a pressure point that could be turned to advantage, by tying the industry to the public-health consequences of its products. He was contemplating how to do that when the Wall Street Journal published an article about a group of companies in and around Los Angeles, California, owned by one extended family that made small-caliber, inexpensive handguns known as Saturday Night Specials. Poorly made and lacking some safety features, the guns were disproportionately used in crime, particularly by juveniles.
The article contained a trove of details about the family that ran the companies, and Wintemute decided to follow that trail. The result was Ring of Fire, a book published in 1994 that described the enterprise and impact of the six companies, which in 1992 produced 34% of the handguns made in the country.
Ring of Fire painted such a stark portrait of the problematic guns that “it became the focus of the rallying cry for local legislative action”, says Sayre Weaver, a lawyer who represented West Hollywood, the first of several Los Angeles communities to ban the sale of the Saturday Night Specials. In 1999, the California legislature followed by making it illegal to manufacture and sell the handguns. Within several years, 5 of the 6 companies were out of business.
Battle to survive
Although his book had a big impact, Wintemute's research soon hit a snag. With grant support from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, Wintemute had been conducting a retrospective cohort study looking at whether handgun buyers with prior misdemeanor convictions are more likely than those without a criminal history to be charged with new crimes, particularly those involving firearms and violence. (Many states allow purchases by criminals who have been convicted of misdemeanors, such as assault.)
But as he was digging into the study, his source of funding came under attack from the National Rifle Association (NRA), a powerful lobbying group based in Fairfax, Virginia, that supports gun ownership. NRA leaders were upset with the CDC for funding work by another researcher who had found that people with a gun in their home were 2.7 times more likely than those without to be murdered, and 4.8 times more likely to commit suicide.