Doctors and nurses have learned to identify patients at risk of violence — are they depressed? Suffering from dementia? Dealing with substance abuse or in a potential domestic violence situation?
But too often, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, they fail to then ask one crucial question of their at-risk patients: Do you have access to a firearm?
And, if they do ask that question, Duchin said, clinicians are often ill-equipped to know what to do with patients who are at high risk of gun violence.
It’s one of the issues Duchin plans to address in a two-day gun violence prevention summit, beginning Tuesday, that King County is billing as the first in Washington to tackle gun violence from a purely public health standpoint.
He wants doctors and nurses to get comfortable not only asking about access to firearms at home, but also suggesting steps to ease high-risk situations, such as temporary firearm transfers, and helping patients or family members to get domestic violence protection orders or extreme risk protection orders.
Gun violence gets the most attention after mass shootings, said County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who sponsored legislation last year that led to the summit.
“But the truth is that over 70% of firearm deaths in King County are by suicide,” McDermott said. “Simply addressing mass shootings doesn’t address the overall public-health crisis we have.”
The summit, at the White Center YWCA, will bring together youth leaders, doctors, public health experts, prosecutors, counselors and lawmakers.
McDermott said he wasn’t headed into the summit with any particular legislative goals in mind, but was hoping to build on reforms the County Council passed last year, including requiring gun shops and shooting ranges to post signs warning about the dangers of firearms.
The council also passed legislation last year requiring gun owners to securely store firearms and requiring the sheriff’s office to destroy forfeited weapons.
Another goal of the summit is to work on getting better data to inform decision making. Congress has famously long barred funding for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that could be used to study gun violence.
Duchin pointed to the Washington State Trauma Registry, which collects data on serious injuries in the state. But gun injuries only enter the registry if the injured person requires an overnight hospital stay, leaving a significant data gap, he said.
“The whole public health approach is based on having good data for decision making so we can better identify risk,” he said. “Firearm related injuries and deaths are a huge public-health problem and health-care providers have an important role to play.”