Yifan Zhang was finishing her PhD in biostatistics at Harvard five years ago when news broke of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
As a graduate student from China, specializing in highly technical design of clinical drug trials, she had little connection to America’s long-running debate over gun violence. But even now, she said, the anguished faces of those parents she saw on television remain seared in her memory.
So when she heard about a gun-violence research project at Stanford University that could use the statistical skills she had honed on pharmaceuticals, she jumped at the chance.
“I have a son who just turned 1,” said Zhang, 31. “When I think about what I will need to teach him about protecting himself, I think about that school shooting.”
After a two-decade recruiting drought, gun researchers say they are suddenly seeing a wave of young scientists entering their field — an unforeseen consequence of recent mass shootings.
Unlike past generations, the new scientists appear undeterred by the field’s lack of funding, dearth of data and hostile political climate. The new contingent has brought energy and fresh approaches to a beleaguered, intractable domain, longtime experts say.
Their work coincides with a resurgence of gun control activism — led by the teenage Parkland student survivors who mounted this weekend’s March for Our Lives — as well as with increased interest from private foundations and state-level governments in funding such research. And on Wednesday, congressional leaders took baby steps toward lifting what has amounted to a ban on federally funded gun research by issuing clarifying language — but no new money — supporting such research.
Together, the infusion of talent and momentum represents a tantalizing opportunity to finally answer questions that have long plagued the U.S. gun debate: questions about the causes of gun violence, its effects on society and — most crucial — the best ways to prevent this brand of violence.
“I’ve been doing this work for 35 years, and this is different than anything before,” said Garen Wintemute, one of the country’s leading gun-violence researchers. “You’re seeing smart — mostly young, but also midcareer — researchers deciding to dive into this area, which is no easy thing. It’s not just the death threats or controversy. There’s so little funding that there’s often no guarantee you’ll even have a job two or three years out. That takes major commitment.”
For decades, Wintemute was the University of California at Davis’s only senior researcher on gun violence. Then came the San Bernardino massacre in 2015.
In its wake, the California legislature made a nationally unprecedented decision to fund the kind of gun research that the federal government has long refused to support. That — combined with new money from his own university and private foundations — allowed Wintemute to begin hiring, establishing a gun-violence center at Davis with nine new researchers.
An increase in academic papers published nationwide on gun violence echoes the surge in interest. An analysis published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that the number of papers hit a plateau from 1999 (when federal funding dried up) to 2012. But beginning in 2013, after a particularly horrific stretch of mass shootings, the numbers rose sharply.
“When [President Barack] Obama came out after Sandy Hook and said we need to stop these shootings and we need research to do it, that woke a lot of people up,” said Phil Cook, a 71-year-old who published his first paper on firearms in 1975.
More than 33,000 people in the United States die by gunfire each year, the highest gun mortality rate among industrialized countries.
It is one of the country’s leading causes of death but receives little research funding.
The lack of money can be traced to a 1996 rule known as the Dickey Amendment, which was passed by Congress under pressure from gun lobbyists. Technically, the amendment forbids the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s funding from being used to advocate for gun control. But the rule had a chilling effect, choking off grant money at federal agencies and essential data-gathering on gun violence.
Mark Rosenberg, who was heading CDC’s research on firearm violence in 1996 when the Dickey Amendment passed, said he believed the work his staff was doing could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
But it all came to a halt when, along with passing the amendment, Congress took away $2.6 million from the CDC — the exact amount previously allocated to Rosenberg’s firearms research. A clear message had been sent to other federal agencies and to the researchers who depend on their funding.
Those limitations slowed the research to a crawl. The few studies conducted have been limited in scope and often cobbled together with minor grants or university support.
Wintemute started chipping in his own money 10 years ago from personal savings and a family inheritance just to keep his work afloat. He works a second job as an emergency doctor and sticks to an ascetic lifestyle — old car, low rent and almost no vacations — to save his money and time for the research. He has poured $2.1 million into it so far.
In the 1970s and ’80s, criminologists were the main researchers studying gun violence, and they were followed by a wave of public health experts in the ’90s.
The new generation, however, is coming in from all sorts of disciplines — economics, statistics, medicine, law and epidemiology. These new researchers had previously focused on other topics.
That diversity has yielded innovative approaches.
One study — published in December by two Wellesley College economists — used data from Google searches, background checks for gun sales and death records to suggest that the intense debate over gun laws after the Sandy Hook shootings led to increased gun sales, which then led to a sharp increase in accidental gun deaths.
Neither economist had worked on gun issues before. “We just saw a chart in the newspaper about the rise in gun sales after Sandy Hook, and it brought up so many questions,” said co-author Phillip Levine.
Another study — published March 1 by a Harvard physician and an economics PhD student — found a 20 percent nationwide drop in injuries from firearms whenever thousands of gun owners gathered for National Rifle Association meetings.
One of the most promising studies underway is a joint venture between seasoned researcher Wintemute and David Studdert — a midcareer researcher at Stanford, new to gun violence research, who focused previously on medical injuries and car accidents.
Together, they have hatched an ambitious plan to tackle the central question in gun research: Are you more or less likely to die if you own a firearm?
The risk-benefit question is, in many ways, what has driven the U.S. gun debate for decades. It is at the crux of President Trump’s recent push to arm teachers.
Gun rights advocates argue that firearms make people safer, reduce crime and protect families. Gun control advocates say possessing a firearm does more harm than good, increasing risk of accidental death, violence and suicide.
The risk-benefit question, however, has been extremely difficult to study. One main hurdle is that there is no national registry of gun ownership.
Studdert’s group is using a data set unique to California because of the state’s strict gun laws. Every time a gun is sold in California, a background check logs the purchase and purchaser with California authorities, who also have been unique in their willingness to share such politically fraught data with academic researchers.
Using a sample of 25 million people (taken from California’s voter registration records), Studdert’s team plans to identify handgun owners with the firearm sales records, then compare that against state death records.
The resulting data in theory will help them determine the relationship — whether good or bad — between gun ownership and death.
They call the project LongSHOT, a nod to the project’s scale and ambition.
In the past two years, Studdert and Wintemute have enlisted the help of seven other researchers on the project — a mixture of old guard, midcareer transfers and young new scientists such as Zhang, the pharmaceutical scientist.
Studdert also has cobbled together roughly a half-million dollars in funding, including a grant from a new consortium of philanthropies that banded together to fund this kind of research.
The LongSHOT team hopes to reach its initial results by end of summer this year. Older researchers have told the newer team members to prepare themselves and their families for backlash.
“There is a nastiness that you have to be prepared for when you publish in this arena,” said Stanford law professor John Donohue, who pulled Studdert aside to warn him. “There’s a level of implicit threat when you reach conclusions the gun interests don’t like.”
Donohue said he has been accused of treason, sent plaques pronouncing him a traitor and had his address posted online.
“It worries my family, especially my wife,” he said. The best protection for researchers is to be vigilantly meticulous in their work. “Know that everything is going to come under scrutiny. When you make mistakes, admit to them. Otherwise, this arena is going to chew you up.”
Rose Kagawa, 33, said the political fervor intimidates her. One of the newly hired researchers at UC Davis, Kagawa said she became an epidemiologist in part because she is introverted.
“My training is in biostatistics and study design. I have zero experience with politics. So all of this is personally a stretch,” she said. “But I look at how car safety research gave us seat belts, how cigarette research saved lives.”
Maybe it’s naive, she said. “But I really think the research we’re doing now could change things in the real world. So I’m going to keep going at it until that proves otherwise.”