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Those close degrees of separation are what Garen Wintemute, the Sacramento-based doctor and researcher, believes will end the ideological stalemate over guns in America. “Whenever we have a public health problem, the numbers don’t tell the story,” Wintemute says. “Individual people tell the story. That’s just how we’re wired as a species.” He notes that it took years of awareness campaigns and a concerted effort by the medical community to legitimately confront the epidemic of HIV and AIDS. For now, Wintemute is one of a handful of physicians in the United States who focuses specifically on preventing gun violence that kills around 32,000 Americans and injures at least 60,000 more annually. “That’s just nuts,” he says.
Little, if any, commitment is foreseen coming out of Washington. Despite the ban’s support from then-President George W. Bush—whose father the National Rifle Association so memorably alienated in 1995—Congress let its landmark assault weapons law lapse from the books in 2004. Democratic senators up for reelection in right-leaning states like Montana, North Dakota, Alaska and Arkansas all opposed new federal firearms restrictions and enhanced background checks arising from the Sandy Hook massacre.
On the state level, gun advocates have revived the recall strategy that derailed gun-law trailblazer David Roberti’s political career 20 years ago. In Colorado, where a mass shooting in Aurora killed 12 people and wounded 58 others in 2012, an NRA-backed recall campaign ousted a pair of Democratic senators who’d voted this year for the state’s new gun restrictions. The organizers of that campaign have since turned to California, where they’ve targeted no fewer than five Democratic lawmakers who supported this year’s gun-control package. (A representative for the recall efforts did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.)
Meanwhile, the chill around federal gun-violence research might be thawing. Last January, among his 23 executive orders regarding gun safety in the wake of Sandy Hook, President Obama issued a directive for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess the health risks and precautionary opportunities surrounding firearm violence. For the first time in 17 years, federal researchers could legally, openly evaluate guns as a public health threat. That study’s findings, released in June, illuminated the complicated tangle of facts around guns in America—facts that both sides of the gun-control fight have co-opted to discredit the other. For instance, gun violence nationwide has largely stabilized or declined over the last 20 years. Gun-rights supporters point out the finding that guns are used frequently and effectively for self-defense, thus negating the need for any new firearms prohibitions. Gun opponents, on the other hand, attribute the declines to the increased oversight that followed in the wake of the Roberti-Roos Act, the expired national assault weapons ban and other legislation.
A recent publication by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence spotlights this plunge in California in particular, where gun deaths dropped 56 percent between 1993 and 2010. But the inconsistency of laws state-to-state means that any gun that’s forbidden in California might be perfectly legal just over the border in Nevada, Arizona or Oregon—in the latter of which Purdy bought his AK-47
in 1988 and whose current laws would permit him to buy the same type of gun today, provided that it was manufactured in the United States. Now, as then, no law passed in Sacramento can stop a gun bought outside the porous state lines from entering California. Indeed, no state imports more guns used in crimes than California—nearly 4,500 guns in 2009 alone, according to a study published by the advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Moreover, says Rob Young, gun opponents’ focus on things like magazine capacity or firearm design overlooks the even more crucial issue of mental health. “We put someone on a psychiatric hold, and it’s like a turnstile,” explains Young, citing one of his chief frustrations as a police officer. “They’re out before their report’s done. Some of these people are really sick, you know? Patrick Purdy—I mean, how many times did he slip through the system? They need to focus more on that, and paying more attention and pouring more money into this rather than saying, ‘We’re going to fight this and ban firearms and make it harder for people to own guns,’ which is going to do nothing.”
Former legislator and gun-control pioneer Mike Roos agrees with Young—to a point.
“I’m not a believer that there’s a simplistic, one-answer solution,” Roos says. “It’s a series of complexities, and the more that we see on the national scene, we realize that mental health is clearly a part of it. What we tried to do is basically just stem the availability to at least have some hurdles and to take some guns that were just wholly inappropriate for anyone being able to walk [into a gun store], and in five minutes walk out armed as if they were a member of the Secret Service. I believe that the more we can research, the better or higher ground that policy makers are able to stand on.”
To that end, the National Institutes of Health have called for grant proposals this winter to study the intersection of violence and firearms. Among the participating institutes are agencies specializing in mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, children’s health and women’s health. The dollar amounts of the grants aren’t yet specified, but the opening date for two of them is Jan. 16, 2014— one day before the 25th anniversary of the Cleveland Elementary School shooting. It’s a momentous bit of outreach in the fraught climate around gun rights—one not lost on Wintemute, who effused with encouragement on the day the grants were announced.
“Doing research isn’t promoting gun control,” he says. “Maybe what you do with the findings could be seen as [that], but the research isn’t. So what the President did in January was to make precisely that point.”
Still, there is that searing question: “What next?”
Stockton knows the answer, as sure as the January sun burns off the valley fog over Cleveland School and the kids run through this and every quietly stricken campus that followed it. Stockton knows the rancor and recriminations that flowed north to Sacramento. It knows the lessons and rites that have begun in Newtown—the lists, the portraits, the anniversaries. The mornings after, the public outcry of days, the private mourning of decades.
Stockton knows where to turn. “It’s very important to talk about the incident—to talk about how you’re feeling, to let your emotions out,” says Khorn Ing, the victim’s mother. “Because if you hold it inside, it’s going to build up inside and explode like a volcano.”
It knows the rage and fear.
“What’s scary to us is we know it’s going to happen again,” says Julie Schardt, the teacher. “And people are going to get upset again, and they’re going to tear their hair out, and they’re going to say, ‘Why haven’t we done something?’ We know it’s going to happen again. And it’s going to be a school, and it’s going to be somebody’s kids.”
It knows the caution.
“We have to look back to other children that we have,” says Sovanna Koeurt, the leader, who urges parents, teachers and peers to preempt violence through vigilance and love. “We have to look to them more closely; maybe before we ignored things. And now we take care of them very well. Maybe you change a little bit. You work with them; you think about them more.”
It knows the reflection.
“Parents lost their children that day, and brothers and sisters lost their siblings,” says Rob Young, the victim who now enforces the law. “It’s sad. And as a parent, God forbid anything happened to my kids, I’d want people to remember them. It’s not about rehashing bad memories. It is a bad memory, but I think something can be learned from it, too.”
And it knows the resolution.
“This problem is big, and it’s absolutely not acceptable, and we as a country are going to do something about it,” says Wintemute, the doctor. His voice is forceful and lean, stripped of everything but purpose. “And maybe it’ll take us five years, maybe it’ll take us a generation. Don’t care. We’re going to do it.” S