OLYMPIA — Lawmakers hope that Washington state will shift toward a public health approach in dealing with gun violence if the governor signs a bill aimed at using data to create a more robust understanding of where and why gun violence occurs.

Senate Bill 6288, which creates a state Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention, has been highly divisive in the Legislature, and passed through the Senate on Tuesday by a single vote, with many lawmakers concerned that the office would become a partisan group advocating for gun control. 

“I know there are people who are scared about this bill,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, who sponsored the bill. “But what this bill is really about [is] understanding where violence occurs in our communities, and how we can intervene to best address it” 

The bill tasks the office with improving statewide data on gun violence, which is currently fragmented and lacking in many areas, and to help develop best practices for therapy for gun violence victims. It also creates a grant program for law enforcement and community-based violence prevention programs, like King County’s Choose 180.

Earlier in the legislative session, Adrian Diaz, assistant chief of the Seattle Police Department, told lawmakers that the bill would help address the burden of gun violence that “falls disproportionately on our Black and brown communities.”

In 2018, 86% of shooting victims in King County were male, and 76% were people of color. According to Dan Carew, a deputy prosecuting attorney with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, those numbers were even higher in 2019.

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SB 6288’s public health approach stands in contrast to the more sweeping gun-related bills introduced this legislative session, treating firearm violence as a communicable disease in need of researching. 

“Firearm injury is a disease, just like any other,” said Nancy Belcher, CEO of the King County Medical Society. She noted that the effects of firearm injury could be “prevented with a better understanding of what leads to the injuries and death.”

Dhingra said the bill is modeled after King County’s Shots Fired program, which uses data in an attempt to understand which communities are most impacted by gun violence, and why the violence occurs.

“[It’s] all existing law enforcement data. It’s arrest data that has always existed,” said Carew, who also works for Shots Fired. “All we’re trying to do is take that existing data and see if we can use it in different ways”

The research, Carew said, is indicating that gun violence is happening in highly concentrated social networks. 

“People who have gunshot victims in their social networks are at elevated risk of becoming victims,” Carew said. 

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The findings suggest a need for community-based solutions, like the ones SB 6288 would provide grant funding to.

“Without engaging communities in this, it won’t be as meaningful as it should be,” Carew said. 

Many of the state’s community-based intervention programs currently rely on inconsistent funding. Evan Cook, from Federal Way Youth Action Team, a community-based program that helps youth avoid the justice system, said the program has been operating “for years with little to no support.”

Dhingra hopes improved data can get to the root causes of firearm violence in order to create proactive, rather than reactive, policies.

Republicans have broadly viewed the legislation as another form of gun control, arguing that the office would be used as a partisan advocacy group, and have criticized the bill for singling out firearm violence as opposed to other forms of violence. Some Democratic lawmakers also voted no.

Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, for example, said the office could be affected by the “influence of the political winds throughout the state,” and that research should be left to institutions like the University of Washington. She noted that a better approach would be to provide funding to those institutions instead of creating a new office.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, also said that any prevention strategies should be held to a peer-reviewed standard, rather than an “evidence-based” standard as set out by the bill. But Dhingra argued such a standard would be difficult to meet with the limited scope of existing data, and that the bill would allow the collection of such data to set the foundation for future research.

“We are really hoping to be the ones that are gathering all that data, doing that evidence-based research,” Dhingra said. “And in the future, hopefully we will be at the point in time where we can rely on science where we can rely on peer review.”

The bill now awaits the governor’s signature.