As Wintemute delved into gun research in the 1980s, he decided to immerse himself in the gun culture. He joined the NRA and the rifle and pistol club in Davis, where he practiced shooting at an indoor range. In 1999, he started to visit gun shows, good opportunities to observe firearm purchases. “Gun shows are sort of like zoos,” he says. “You can easily see a wide range of behaviors.”
At his first show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the signs used to advertise guns caught his attention. One licensed retailer displayed a Mossberg Model 500 shotgun with a pistol grip next to a poster that read “Great for Urban Hunting”. Another sign, beside a Savage rifle, read: “Great for Getto [sic] Cruisers”.
Wintemute says that he was astonished by the blatant promotion of guns as murder weapons. “It was clearly a story that had to be told — bearing witness is part of the job — but I wanted to figure out a way to tell the story quantitatively, scientifically.”
It took several years of trial and error at shows before he was confident enough of his methods to begin collecting data. He cut off his waist-length ponytail so he would not stand out in the crowds, bought a small camera and placed it in a bag of Panda liquorice with a lens-sized hole cut in the side. A pen and notepad would attract too much notice, so he set up his office voicemail so that he could call it from his mobile phone and record long messages. He later added a video camera disguised to look like a button on his shirt.
Several times, Wintemute was accused of taking unauthorized photos, and his phone was temporarily confiscated by security personnel, who examined it and found no pictures. After one such episode, he says, a colleague overheard a group of men planning to attack Wintemute outside the show, but Wintemute successfully avoided them.
Altogether, he attended 78 gun shows in 19 states, strolling the aisles while apparently deep in a phone conversation. A paper on the findings showed, among other things, that the restrictive policies regulating gun shows in California resulted in fewer illegal 'straw' purchases — in which someone buys a gun on behalf of a person legally barred from doing so — than in other states.
By 2008, Wintemute was contending with being outed: David Codrea, the author of a blog called WarOnGuns, had posted Wintemute's photo online with the note: “WARNING! IF YOU SEE THIS MAN, NOTIFY SECURITY IMMEDIATELY.” The post identified Wintemute by name and called him an “anti-gun 'researcher'” who stalked gun shows with hidden cameras and recorders.
But by that point, Wintemute says, he had learned all he could and stopped going to shows.
Last month, on the day after Wintemute spoke to the emergency researchers in San Francisco, the NRA posted a critique slamming a study that reported that states with more firearm laws had lower rates of firearm fatalities.
The NRA quoted from an unlikely source to attack the paper: Wintemute, who had published a sharp rebuttal to the paper in the same journal. Wintemute had argued that the association between more laws and fewer deaths disappeared when the authors accounted for firearm ownership in a state — meaning that it is impossible to say whether the restrictive gun laws save lives by inhibiting gun ownership or whether laws are simply easier to enact in states in which ownership rates are already low. The latter is a more plausible explanation, he wrote.