In 1996, the NRA persuaded congressman Jay Dickey (Republican, Arkansas) to insert language into a budget bill to prohibit the CDC from advocating or promoting gun control. (That ban has been renewed every year since then.) Dickey's amendment also stripped $2.6 million from the agency's 1997 funding — the exact amount that the CDC had spent on firearm research the previous year.
In 1996, Wintemute had received $292,000 from the CDC for the misdemeanor study, but after the change, the agency provided just $50,000 to close down the program.
The research restrictions were extended in 2012 to encompass all of the CDC's parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. And they have had a measurable effect. According to an analysis of Elsevier's Scopus database by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the proportion of all publications dealing with US firearms and their impacts declined by 60% between 1996 and 2010.
US researchers still produce more papers per capita on the topic than do investigators from other countries. But the subject may not be as high on other countries' research agendas because gun ownership is so much lower in most developed nations (see 'Top gun'). The United Kingdom, for example, banned private possession of handguns in 1998 after a gunman shot and killed 16 children and their teacher in a school in Dunblane, Scotland.
Wintemute was rare in staying devoted to gun research after the restrictions were imposed. He turned to the California Wellness Foundation, a large private charity based in Woodland Hills that focuses on health care and health education, and the foundation provided the funds to complete his study. Wintemute followed up nearly 6,000 authorized handgun purchasers, most of them for 15 years. He found that men who had had two or more convictions for misdemeanor violence were 15 times as likely as those with no criminal history to be charged with the most violent crimes.
Today, Wintemute runs the four-person Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, on about $300,000 a year, none of which comes from the federal government. Of this, $50,000 is from the California Wellness Foundation. Until last year, Wintemute also received substantial funding from both the California and US departments of justice. Since 2005, he has donated $945,000 from his own savings and stock sales to the program.
In July, the university announced that it would endow two professor slots to support Wintemute's program, each of which comes with $75,000 a year. Wintemute has assumed one and is looking to fill the other one, a position in violence epidemiology.
The hiring comes at a time of renewed activity in the field. After the December school shooting, President Barack Obama ordered the CDC to resume research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it; his 2014 budget request, released on 10 April, asks Congress to provide $10 million for the research. This week in Washington DC, Wintemute spoke to an Institute of Medicine panel that has been formed to advise the CDC on which research questions are most pressing.