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Congress Refuses, So California Will Study Gun Violence

In the wake of another mass shooting and amid congressional inaction on gun control, the state has announced plans to open the nation's first public research center dedicated to firearm violence.

People at a vigil in recognition of Gun Violence Awareness Month in New York.
(AP/Julie Jacobson)
Taking matters into its own hands, California will open the nation's first public research center dedicated to the study of gun violence.

The California Firearm Violence Research Center will fill the hole that Congress left when it defunded and effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's gun research in 1996. To establish the center, SB 1006, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last week, allocates $5 million to the University of California over a five-year period.

The news comes on the heels of one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, where 49 people were shot dead in an Orlando gay nightclub earlier this month. Since then, Congress has been embattled in emotional and fierce debates that have led to a 15-hour filibuster and a 25-hour sit-in but no legislative action on gun control.

“Congressional inaction means that states are going to have to step up more on the local level,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. 

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and other pro-gun rights groups, which lobbied for the federal ban in the 1990s, oppose government-funded research because they believe it's essentially advocacy work on behalf of pro-gun control legislators. 

“It is obvious that the research conducted under SB 1006 will not be favorable to law-abiding gun owners,” said a statement on the NRA’s website.

California state Sen. Lois Wolk, who spearheaded the bill, doesn't buy the NRA's claims. 

"The hollowness of their arguments was on display for everyone to see," she said. "Plus, this bill had bipartisan support from the beginning."

California already has a Violence Prevention Research Center at the University of California, Davis. The new center, however, will focus specifically on firearm violence -- and not just in California. Researchers will study policies, trends and patterns on firearm violence from around the world. Officials in the university system will convene later this summer to decide on which campus it will be located. 

The forthcoming center has a surprising ally: former Congressman Jay Dickey of Arkansas, who authored the amendment that ended the CDC’s gun research. In recent years, he has said he regrets that decision. 

“California is setting a very good example by supporting the research that will empower their legislators to protect both its citizens and their gun rights," he said in a statement.

The Sunshine State isn't the only one taking action on guns this year.

Gun control measures will appear on November ballots in several states. Maine and Nevada residents will decide whether to require background checks for every sale, including online and gun show purchases. And in Washington state, voters will choose whether to let judges take away gun ownership privileges from people who are experiencing a violent mental health episode or have threatened violence toward themselves or others.

There's also been movement to expand gun rights in the last couple of years. For example, a new Texas law -- which more than a dozen states have -- gives people the right to carry guns in open view as long as they have a license. Kansas also recently became the sixth state that lets people carry concealed weapons -- regardless of whether they have a permit. And starting July 1, certain public employees in Kansas can carry concealed guns on the job.

For state lawmakers looking to enact gun violence measures, Benjamin of the American Public Health Association says the best place to start is with data. Focusing on that, he said, could promote lawmakers to find common ground.

“Even in a state with a strong gun culture, lawmakers could make sure people at gun bazaars are educated and train them to identify gun buyers that have red flags,” he said. “There are so many things to be done that don’t infringe on Second Amendment rights.”

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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