Menus Subscribe Search
gun-medicine

California’s Gun Medicine

• May 03, 2013 • 7:30 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: GENTLEMAN DRAUGHTSMAN)

Why we should be treating gun violence as a disease—and why most states can’t.

Night after night, dressed in a black jumpsuit and a bulletproof vest, John Marsh knocks on the doors of violent felons and mentally ill people and asks them for their guns. People hand them over more often than you might expect. Last year, Marsh, a special agent with the California Bureau of Firearms, and the 33-person team he heads, confiscated 2,000 illegally-owned weapons.

Marsh is the lead agent for the Armed Prohibited Persons System, a program in which state officials comb through mountains of data to find people who have lost the right to own guns, and then send Marsh’s team to take those guns away. The agents are looking for people who bought guns legally, but were later convicted of a felony, put under a restraining order, or were deemed seriously mentally ill—any of which bar them from owning a firearm. Today the list includes almost 20,000 people who hold more than 38,000 handguns and 1,600 assault weapons.

The prohibited-persons program exists in part thanks to Garen Wintemute, a doctor and researcher at the University of California, Davis Medical Center. Wintemute has been studying gun violence since the 1980s, even sneaking into gun shows undercover to snoop on quasi-licit weapons sales. He is one of a number of academics and activists trying to get people to look at gun violence not just as a criminal-justice issue, but as a public-health one. In other words, treat gun crime as a disease, and then seek ways to stop its spread. “Whether it’s cancer or traffic accidents, you ask the same questions,” says Wintemute. “You identify the high-risk groups and then look for interventions.”

People banned from legally owning firearms can always get one on the black market. But forcing them to do that reduces the risk that they’ll use a gun at all.

In this case, one high-risk group is pistol-owning ex-cons. People with serious felony records are barred nationwide from owning guns, but research shows that such folks are nonetheless relatively likely to commit new crimes—with a gun. According to federal inmate data analyzed by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, about 40 percent of felons surveyed who were convicted of gun-related offenses were prohibited from owning firearms when they committed the offense. Duke University researchers studying people charged with homicides in Illinois found similar results.

The intervention: enforce existing law by taking the guns away. Sure, people banned from legally owning firearms can always get one on the black market. But forcing them to do that apparently reduces the risk that they’ll use a gun at all. In 1990, California added people convicted of violent misdemeanors, such as resisting arrest or brandishing a weapon, to its list of prohibited persons. Wintemute’s team gathered records on two sets of people who fell into this category: individuals who bought handguns before the ban took effect, and individuals who tried to buy handguns after the ban but were turned down. Then the researchers looked at what happened over the following three years. They found that for members of both groups, the risk of committing new non-violent crimes was about identical. But in the group that was banned from buying handguns, the risk for new gun and/or violent crimes went down by about 30 percent. “That specificity of effect is a real zinger for us,” says Wintemute.

That kind of data helped persuade California lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The bill creating the program was introduced by a Republican, and was even supported by the National Rifle Association, though that organization has since changed its position. “I’ve got nothing against getting guns out of the hands of violent criminals,” says Chuck Michel, a lawyer who represents the NRA in California. “But there are 30 different ways you can be prohibited from owning a gun. Most of the people on the list aren’t a threat, and don’t even know they’re on it.”

The program has been running quietly since 2007. In the wake of the Newtown massacre, though, media from local newspapers to the national networks have run admiring stories on it. Nationwide, Wintemute estimates that as many as 180,000 people should be on a prohibited-persons list. Still, the chance that other states will set up similar programs is slim at best. The problem isn’t just that passing gun-control measures is an uphill battle; it’s that California is essentially the only state that has the data to make the program possible.

California allows only licensed retailers to sell handguns—there’s no “gun-show loophole”—and has recorded those sales since 1996. “Only a handful of states have this data, and none of them going back as far as California,” says Wintemute. “Most have nothing at all.” And the federal government is prohibited by law from setting up a centralized gun-tracking system.

Still, the idea is picking up a little momentum. Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson of California introduced a bill in Congress to provide grants for states to set up similar programs. And California is expected to boost funding for its program to help clear the backlog and keep up with the 3,000 new names added every year.

Wintemute, meanwhile, is looking for money to evaluate what, if any, impact the program has had. “I’d expect an obvious change in the crime rate nationwide if we could disarm all the people on the prohibited-persons list,” he says. “But that would take a magic wand.” The U.S. Department of Justice has turned him down—partly because they see no point in funding research into a program other states couldn’t replicate even if they wanted to.

Vince Beiser
Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @vincelb.

More From Vince Beiser

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



July 18 • 4:00 PM

The Litany of Problems With the Pentagon’s Effort to Recover MIAs

A draft inspector general report found that the mission lacks basic metrics for how to do the job—and when to end it.


July 18 • 2:00 PM

Sure, the Jobs Are Back, but We Need a Lot More

We’re back to where we were before the 2008 recession, but there are now 12 million more people in the United States.


July 18 • 12:00 PM

What Are the Benefits of Government-Funded Research?

Congress wants to know.


July 18 • 10:31 AM

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?


July 18 • 10:00 AM

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.


July 18 • 9:48 AM

What Tech Talent Shortage? Microsoft Trims 18,000 Employees From Payroll

Like manufacturing before it, the Innovation Economy has reached a turning point, with jobs moving to places where labor is cheaper.


July 18 • 8:00 AM

The Academic of Comic Books

Kim O’Connor talks to Hillary Chute about comics as objects of criticism, the role of female cartoonists, and the art world’s evolving relationship with the form.


July 18 • 6:00 AM

The Supreme Court’s ‘Hobby Lobby’ Ruling Isn’t a Women’s Health Issue

It’s a private health issue. And it affects us all.


July 18 • 4:00 AM

‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ Comes Easier to the Danes

New research finds the closer a nation is to the genetic make-up of Denmark, the happier its citizens are.


July 17 • 4:00 PM

A Way for Feminism to Overcome Its ‘Class Problem’

A growing body of research indicates that there are few other interventions that improve the economic prospects and work-life balance of women workers as much as unions do.


July 17 • 2:00 PM

How a Fanny Pack Mix-Up Unraveled a Massive Medicare Fraud Scheme

Two secretaries in a doctor’s office have pleaded guilty and a pharmacy owner faces charges in a scam that Medicare allowed to thrive for more than two years.


July 17 • 12:00 PM

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Makes a Great Argument for Sex

We could all learn a thing or two from our close cousin, the bonobo.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.