Lawmakers propose California center on gun violence research

With Congress deadlocked over a proposal to fund gun violence prevention research, California lawmakers are making moves to establish a state-funded national center on the issue at a university campus.

The proposal has once again put California at the forefront of gun issues, drawing national attention to the state after a Dec. 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead and 22 others wounded at the hands of two terrorists.

“Our researchers at the University of California are tops in the nation, and if Congress refuses to act responsibly, we need to step up and fill the void,” said state Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), who introduced a bill to create the facility.

In 1996, the National Rifle Assn. lobbied to halt the use of federal money for gun violence research, arguing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was using the funds to advocate for gun control. As a result, the CDC put a self-imposed ban in place on such research.

Legislation in Congress to lift the prohibition has stalled, so Wolk and 17 other California lawmakers, including Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) are supporting the state bill.

The measure would establish a Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California to "provide the scientific evidence on which sound firearm violence prevention policies and programs can be based."

The bill is opposed by the NRA, which sees the measure as a way for gun control advocates in the Legislature to try to provide scientific support for their positions, according to Amy Hunter, an NRA spokeswoman.

“We don’t think taxpayers should be paying for research that advocates for a political agenda,” Hunter said. “I have no doubt that if this center is created this research will end up backing up their political agenda. The people proposing this are very much anti-gun politicians.”

De León has tried unsuccessfully for years to propose background checks for those buying ammunition, but the measures have stalled under opposition.

The NRA would like to see research that looks at the effectiveness of existing gun control laws, Hunter said.

“We see that all these mass shootings happen in gun-free zones,” Hunter said. “Is there scientifically a reason why that happens?” 

Wolk said the proposed center would look at the effectiveness of existing policies.

“We want to have research being the basis for making good policy, and once bills are enacted in the area of firearms we want to make sure they are effective,” Wolk said.

Her bill does not include the $5 million in funding proposed for the center's first five years of operation, which Wolk hopes to secure during the separate budget process from the general fund. Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a public position on the proposal.

The measure would also allow the center to accept grants and other funding from foundations and other nonprofits. A UC campus would be selected to host the research center based on competitive proposals, Wolk said.

SB 1006 was approved Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee on a vote of 7 to 2 after physicians testified to the panel about how gun violence has hurt many young people.

The research center is “important for the lives of the youth in California,” said Dean Blumberg of the American Academy of Pediatrics. California Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) called gun violence a "public health crisis."

Republican Sen. Robert Huff of Diamond Bar noted there is already a research program on violence at UC Davis, but Wolk said it is a small operation that is privately funded.

“This is something that can and should be done at the federal level,” Huff said.

The proposal has drawn the national spotlight.

Supporters include former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas), who wrote the 1996 amendment restricting the federal research, and Mark Rosenberg, former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC. Dickey and Rosenberg wrote a letter on behalf of the measure, which also has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). 

“California has the opportunity to once again lead the nation on reforming policy, this time by supporting much-needed research on the causes and impacts of gun violence,” Feinstein wrote in support of the bill.

Supporters envision a California research center that is a leading authority on the issue of gun violence prevention nationally. Research is also taking place at other institutions including the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, which has received funding from former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a leading gun control advocate.

Last week, Boston University researchers issued a report saying shootings would significantly decline with background checks for those buying firearms and ammunition and a requirement that gun owners get their firearms microchipped or “fingerprinted” for identification purposes.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Follow @mcgreevy99 on Twitter

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