Scientists at the Harborview Injury and Prevention Research Center (HIPRC) have been working on a shoestring budget for years to research the impact of gun violence and look for ways to prevent shootings, suicides and accidental deaths involving firearms.
Now, their research will be bolstered by $1 million in state funding over the next two years, designated as a general fund line item in this year’s $52.4 billion budget signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May.
State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, joined researchers at Harborview Medical Center on Friday to announce the money is going to the HIPRC, to study risk factors for gun-related injuries and deaths, evaluate the effectiveness of firearms laws and policies, and develop strategies to reduce the devastating toll of gun violence in the state.
It’s the first time in nearly 10 years that state lawmakers have provided any funding for firearms-related research, and it puts Washington third behind California and New Jersey among states that have dedicated money to supporting a scientific evaluation of gun laws and how well they work, said Frockt.
“The gun violence problem is complex and deals with suicide, school shootings, mass shootings, access to firearms, mental health issues, how we guide our children,” Frockt said. “How we should be thinking about this is as a public health issue, as a science problem where rational policy can make a difference.”
With Democratic majorities in both houses, the state’s Legislature now has “elected officials who want to see action and not just ‘thoughts and prayers’ when we have these tragedies,” he said. “Who sets the agenda really matters.”
HIPRC’s researchers have been working with limited resources since Congress passed the Dickey Amendment in 1996 that restricted federal funding of research, which gun rights advocates argued supported gun control.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), the main lobbyist for gun rights, has taken credit for the research halt, Reuters reported. In a 2013 article, the news agency attributed a quote to the NRA, made two years earlier: “These junk science studies and others like them are designed to provide ammunition for the gun control lobby by advancing the false notion that legal gun ownership is a danger to the public health instead of an inalienable right.”
Dr. Fred Rivara, a pediatrician and researcher at HIPRC, said the Second Amendment isn’t going away. But that doesn’t mean researchers shouldn’t question whether safely storing guns and restricting who can access them impacts the number of people injured or killed.
Harborview is a regional Trauma 1 center, which means critically injured patients from Washington, Montana, Idaho and Alaska are treated there. Last year, 308 people across the region were treated at Harborview for gunshot wounds, and of that number, 216 of them were residents of King County, Rivara said. This year, he projects Harborview will see 352 gunshot victims, with 256 coming from inside the county.
“Unfortunately, the problem seems to be getting worse,” said Rivara, who has studied firearm injury prevention for 30 years and will work alongside Dr. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar in creating and directing the HIPRC’s firearm research project.
A previous study by the HIPRC found that a gunshot victim who survives is 20 times more likely to be shot and injured again and four times as likely to be killed with a gun within five years of the original injury, Rivara said. Washington also has a higher suicide rate than the rest of the country, he said, with 75% of suicides here committed with firearms compared to 60% of suicides nationally.
“Another statistic to me that’s really startling is that 99% of us will (know) someone in our lifetimes injured or killed by firearms,” said Rivara, who estimated guns are in 30 to 35% of Washington households, with an average of four firearms per home.
He said research assistants are already combing through King County Superior Court records as part of an evaluation on Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO), which allow police and family members to ask a judge to keep firearms out of the hands of people believed to pose a danger to themselves or others, even if there is no criminal behavior. They’ll be going to courthouses across the state to access similar information on ERPOs as well as guns seized from people accused of committing crimes of domestic violence, Rivara said. Other areas of study will include whether age restrictions on purchasing certain firearms have an impact on gun violence and suicides, and whether there’s a basis for restricting gun ownership among people with substance-abuse issues like there is for felons or domestic-violence abusers, he said.
Researchers will also study whether other states have effective firearms policies that are worth considering here.
“(State lawmakers) want to know what works, and we want to answer that question for them,” Rivara said.
Dr. Monica Vavilala, an attending physician at Harborview and the director of the HIPRC, said conversations around firearms tend to be emotionally charged and discussions about gun violence often get confused with the right to own weapons. But she said vulnerable communities, where firearm injuries are common, often become desensitized to the violence — and using a gun shouldn’t be considered a normal response to conflict or outcome to a mental health crisis.
“It’s very hard as a physician to take care of these patients because we see these as preventable injuries,” Vavilala said. “Often, they’re critically injured and we can’t save them.”