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OHSU researchers trying to help solve gun violence by studying issue as public health crisis

There are people who have dedicated themselves to understanding the problem in order to find solutions.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Gun violence in Oregon and across the country is in the spotlight again after a string of recent mass shootings. But there are people who have dedicated themselves to understanding the problem in order to find solutions.

At Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and the Portland VA Medical Center, researchers are studying gun violence through the lens of public health. With the data they compile, Dr. Kathleen Carlson and her team hope to reduce instances of gun violence across Oregon.

“We're looking at all gun injuries treated in emergency departments and urgent care centers across the state, and we're also looking at firearm-related deaths across the state and we're evaluating those for patterns over time,” said Carlson, a professor of public health at OHSU and Portland State University's School of Public Health.

She and her team got funding for gun violence research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) a couple years ago, after Congress appropriated $25 million for it.

“That was a new CDC source of funding that went out to several states around the country, ours included,” Carlson said.

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While she said that chunk of money is a drop in the bucket compared to funding for other topics of research, it's still a big deal, especially since funding for gun violence research was restricted for many years.

“The NRA [National Rifle Association] viewed this as a way to publicly fund research that supported gun control,” said Carlson.

So, she said the NRA worked with Congress to change the budget appropriation to the CDC.

“If funding goes to gun violence research, then the CDC will lose its entire budget for injury and violence prevention. So, this totally stopped gun research,” Carlson said.

But now she said things are starting to change as more research funding has become available. Carlson said she began researching gun violence in about 2015 after the Sandy Hook school shooting, where 26 people died. Twenty of the victims were children. Carlson, who was a parent at the time, had also lost a family member to suicide by firearm. 

“I thought, I have all the training for this. I have personal experience. I need to use these tolls to address this issue," she said.

Carlson said nationally, gun injuries have superseded motor vehicle crash deaths. Oregon averages over 500 gun deaths each year. About 80% of them are suicides, and she said there are also a lot of unintentional injuries. According to Carlson, there were some notable findings in the VA data her team studied.

“We've seen that any treatment for a firearm injury that was non-fatal is strongly associated with the subsequent death from a firearm, most commonly suicide,” said Carlson.

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She said her team is thinking of ways to intervene at the hospital level when people come in, but they're also looking at possible changes at the community level to reduce gun violence. One idea that’s been gaining traction is using environmental design.

“On the national level, what we've seen evaluated robustly is the use of greening initiatives which is, you know, taking vacant lots, greening those vacant lots, reducing urban blight or vacant buildings,” Carlson said.

She said the environmental design idea can be seen as beautifying neighborhoods or reinvesting in them after decades of divestment, which she said affects rates of violence.

“But it also, very practically, reduces areas where people can hide or stash weapons.”

After so much gun violence in our communities, Carlson said gun violence is not inevitable. We can do something about it and it starts with understanding the problem.

“It's not hopeless. There are myriad ways to evaluate this and get a handle on it,” she said.

Carlson likened it to advancements to car and road safety over the years. The same can be true with guns and gun violence, balancing safety and freedoms.

“Gun injury and gun violence is not inevitable. There are solutions, there are patterns that we can evaluate, and that means that there are solutions and ways to prevent it.”

Carlson said we as a society need to get rid of the idea that the issue is binary, gun rights versus gun control. She said there is a lot of room in the middle to find a viable solution.

While her work won’t mean a stop to gun violence immediately, she hopes the research that she and her team are spearheading will help curb gun violence in the future.

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