Tak­ing aim at gun vi­o­lence

The ‘most dan­ger­ous sci­en­tist in Amer­ica’ will ex­am­ine ways to pre­vent at­tacks.

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By Teresa Watan­abe teresa.watan­abe@latimes.com Twit­ter: @Tere­saWatan­abe

SACRA­MENTO — The low-slung build­ing in Sacra­mento is locked and un­marked for a rea­son. It’s the nerve cen­ter of the newly in­au­gu­rated Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Firearm Vi­o­lence Pre­ven­tion Re­search Cen­ter. The cen­ter’s 15 UC Davis re­searchers, along with oth­ers from UCLA, UC Berke­ley and UC Irvine, plan to use a five-year, $5-mil­lion state ap­pro­pri­a­tion to con­duct the most ex­ten­sive ex­am­i­na­tion ever of gun vi­o­lence — who is at risk and how to pre­vent it. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment largely stopped fund­ing gun vi­o­lence re­search two decades ago.

Lead­ing the ef­fort is Garen Win­te­mute, 65, a UC Davis emer­gency room physi­cian who has con­ducted gun vi­o­lence re­search for more than 30 years. The wiry worka­holic, a self-de­scribed cri­sis junkie, helped win pas­sage of a state ban on cheap hand­guns known as Satur­day night spe­cials five years af­ter his 1994 book, “Ring of Fire,” ex­posed the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia firearm man­u­fac­tur­ers. Such work has led to threats — a gun maker once told him to make sure his life in­sur­ance was paid up — and a me­di­acre­ated moniker as “the most dan­ger­ous sci­en­tist in Amer­ica” to the gun in­dus­try.

Since the mass shooting in Las Ve­gas on Oct. 1, Win­te­mute has been del­uged with re­quests for in­ter­views and of­fers of aid. He spoke with The Times in his sparsely fur­nished of­fice, which fea­tures shelves of le­gal books, pho­to­graphs of the cos­mos and a hand­writ­ten note to him­self: “Re­mem­ber why you’re do­ing this, and for whom. Be pa­tient. Be grate­ful.”

What can we learn from this lat­est mass shooting?

The next one won’t be like this one. They’re all unique. What we need to do is fig­ure out what are the threads in com­mon and how can we ad­dress those com­mon­al­i­ties so that we can pre­vent the next one. And the one that comes to mind is the weapon fac­tor. It’s not that he used a semi­au­to­matic weapon. It’s that he used a high-ca­pac­ity mag­a­zine for the semi­au­to­matic weapon.

Did the Las Ve­gas gun­man fit the pro­file of a mass shooter? Is there a pro­file?

This guy was white. Shoot­ers tend to be men. But he was a lot older than most of them. The prob­lem is, if a pro­file is gen­eral enough to fit mass shoot­ers, it fits mil­lions of peo­ple. There are a whole lot of an­gry men out there. And the ques­tion is what makes this an­gry man do some­thing that the other an­gry men don’t? And no­body has an an­swer.

Could any­thing have pre­dicted his be­hav­ior?

No. Mass shoot­ers have a ten­dency to ac­quire lots of weapons. What no­body’s ever tested is the hy­poth­e­sis that they ac­quire more weapons than oth­ers do. Here in Cal­i­for­nia we can ac­tu­ally do that. Given the data avail­able in Cal­i­for­nia, it’s pos­si­ble that we can iden­tify pur­chase pat­terns that are as­so­ci­ated with an in­creased risk of fu­ture vi­o­lence. Is there any­thing about their pur­chas­ing pat­tern — the over­all num­ber of weapons, the fre­quency, the type of weapon pur­chased — that would al­low us with any de­gree of con­fi­dence to say that peo­ple with par­tic­u­lar kinds of pur­chas­ing his­tory ap­pear to be as a group at high risk for do­ing some­thing bad down the road?

But there are cer­tain risk fac­tors for gun vi­o­lence?

Men are more at risk for be­ing vic­tims of homi­cide, for com­mit­ting homi­cide, for com­mit­ting sui­cide. For homi­cide, youth is a risk fac­tor.… Al­co­hol. Prior vi­o­lence. Con­trolled sub­stance abuse.

One of the re­ally per­ni­cious myths is that in­ter­per­sonal vi­o­lence is a prob­lem pre­dom­i­nantly as­so­ci­ated with men­tal ill­ness. And that’s just not true. Only 4% to 5% of in­ter­per­sonal vi­o­lence is as­so­ci­ated pri­mar­ily with men­tal ill­ness. Don­ald Trump has re­ferred to the Las Ve­gas shooter as sick. Maybe. As de­mented. No ev­i­dence what­so­ever. That’s a di­ag­no­sis. It is wrong on sev­eral lev­els to say that be­cause he did what he did, he’s men­tally ill. It fur­ther stig­ma­tizes men­tal ill­ness. It may sim­ply be fac­tu­ally in­cor­rect. We don’t know.

So what is the pre­ven­tive so­lu­tion?

One of the com­mon­al­i­ties is high-ca­pac­ity mag­a­zines. In Cal­i­for­nia al­most 30 years ago, we banned sales of those mag­a­zines. Only last year, we banned pos­ses­sion. But they’re still out there. Maybe the next step is … some­thing like an amnesty. Turn it in. No ques­tions asked for a spe­cific pe­riod of time. Af­ter that, if you’ve got one, you’re go­ing to jail.

If I had to put one thing at the top of the list it would be to ex­pand the cri­te­ria for de­nial of a firearm pur­chase to in­clude peo­ple who ac­tively abuse al­co­hol. We’re do­ing re­search to con­firm that those peo­ple are among those who legally pur­chase firearms and are at in­creased risk for com­mit­ting crimes.

Why is it eas­ier to do gun re­search in Cal­i­for­nia?

No other state col­lects the data Cal­i­for­nia does. We also have a Leg­is­la­ture that places a high value on sci­en­tific ev­i­dence when mak­ing pol­icy. We take a more reg­u­la­tory ap­proach to firearms.

Cal­i­for­nia pro­hibits the pur­chase and pos­ses­sion of firearms by peo­ple who have been con­victed of vi­o­lent mis­de­meanor crimes such as as­sault and bat­tery for 10 years, by peo­ple who have been hos­pi­tal­ized for men­tal health emergencies in­volv­ing dan­ger­ous­ness to self or oth­ers for five years, and by peo­ple who are sub­ject to tem­po­rary do­mes­tic vi­o­lence re­strain­ing or­ders . ...

It’s also true that we have be­low-av­er­age firearm homi­cide rates. Whether our laws get credit for that or not I hon­estly don’t know, but that’s some­thing else we’re go­ing to look at.

You’ve been called the most dan­ger­ous sci­en­tist in Amer­ica to the gun in­dus­try. Are you?

Gosh, I don’t know. There are a few of us. Let’s be clear about what the danger is. Firearms are con­sumer prod­ucts. The in­dus­try needs to move prod­uct. To the ex­tent that they see the work that any of us do as threat­en­ing those eco­nomic in­ter­ests, they see us as a threat.

De­spite threats, you don’t back down. Why not?

It’s a huge prob­lem. I know as an ER doc­tor, most of the peo­ple who die from gun­shot wounds die where they were shot. So for us as clin­i­cians to make the largest in­roads we can into the num­ber of peo­ple who die, we have to pre­vent them from be­ing shot in the first place. So that’s why. The ques­tions are fas­ci­nat­ing. The op­por­tu­nity to make a dif­fer­ence for the bet­ter is fas­ci­nat­ing. There are very, very few peo­ple work­ing on it. There’s ac­tive op­po­si­tion. What’s not to like?

Le­zlie Ster­ling Sacra­mento Bee

GAREN WIN­TE­MUTE, a UC Davis emer­gency room doc­tor, is lead­ing a fiveyear study on gun vi­o­lence to learn pat­terns for who is at risk and how to stop it.

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