One of the paper's authors, Eric Fleegler, an emergency physician at Boston Children's Hospital in Massachusetts, responds that “when you look at firearm-related homicides, even controlling for firearm ownership, firearm-related homicides do decrease in states with more gun laws”.
This is not the first time that Wintemute has attacked papers he perceives to be weak, even if they point towards policies he would like to see adopted. And he goes no easier on policies that he views as ineffective, even ones that seek to limit firearm ownership. He has, for instance, repeatedly criticized the assault-weapons ban enacted by Congress in 1994, in part because the ban was easily circumvented. Instead, he advocates three steps informed by research: requiring background checks for all US gun sales, forbidding alcohol abusers and those convicted of violent misdemeanors from buying guns and rewriting current federal restrictions on gun ownership to better capture people who are mentally ill and at risk of violence to themselves or others.
Wintemute's rigor has earned the respect of some ideological opponents, but others say that his work betrays anti-gun biases by, for instance, selectively citing the literature in a way that minimizes the value of firearms for self-defense.
“We have followed his research for many years. Pro-gun scholars have criticized it for just as long,” says John Frazer, director of the Research and Information Division at the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action in Fairfax.
Wintemute's work at gun shows has also triggered complaints. Kopel, the Independence Institute's researcher, says that Wintemute's hidden-camera tactics were “sleazy”. “I have a higher opinion of him as a guy who looks at the data and analyses them in a serious way,” Kopel says.
Now, Wintemute is focusing on a new project. He is designing a randomized trial to study roughly 20,000 people who purchased guns legally in California but have since lost the right to own firearms because they committed a violent crime, were served with a domestic-violence restraining order or were judged mentally ill and potentially violent. Unlike in other states, authorities in California have begun to take guns away from those people. Wintemute is hoping to test the effectiveness of the policy by comparing re-offence rates among those whose guns are seized quickly versus those who keep them for longer.
The money for his own work, at least in the short term, will probably have to come from California or from private sources. Wintemute is not optimistic that funds for CDC firearm research will be forthcoming from Congress in the short term.
Whether or not the federal money materializes, Wintemute will continue the work he began 30 years ago. For him, it is part of his mission as a physician to relieve suffering. “Everything that was true of firearm violence in the early 1980s is still true today,” he says. “There is a fundamental injustice in violence. People don't ask for it; it comes to them.”