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CDC Funds Project Researching Gun Violence


So far this year in the United States, at least 17,864 people have died due to gun violence. Most are not mass shootings like the one that took place in San Jose last week or the one that just happened at a banquet hall in Miami last night, where more than 20 people were shot, and at least two were killed. Instead, it's a steady drip of death and injury. One person shot in Philadelphia while fixing his car, two killed outside a bar in Georgia after a fight, 47 people all told in one day. That was May 27. After years of horrific violence and political stalemate over guns in this country, what can really be done? Well, we may not be as stuck as we think. In a moment, someone who looks at gun rights talks about surprising new statistics on who is buying firearms now, and what that may mean for the debate going forward. But first, after years of the CDC avoiding research on gun deaths, there is now federal money to support that work. Dr. Megan Ranney is an emergency physician and leads a national project now funded by the CDC on gun safety. And she joins me now. Hello.

MEGAN RANNEY: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You received funding. You're actually part of the first group in 25 years, I believe it is, to receive funding from the CDC. What does your research involve exactly?

RANNEY: So my research is developing in conjunction with 4-H program for kids who are part of their shooting sports clubs, to improve their knowledge about gun safety. 4-H has a tremendous track record of teaching kids how to handle guns safely and how to avoid accidental injuries. But they don't talk about the injuries and deaths that are most common in the United States - suicides and homicides, domestic violence and, to a lesser extent, mass shootings. So we're working with them to develop a program to educate teens about how to recognize risk factors and how to do something to help keep their community safe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does the CDC funding let you do that you couldn't do before? What doors does it open?

RANNEY: Oh, gosh. You know, to do public health research, it requires money, just like anything else in the world. So this funding allows me to do really high quality, rigorous research to see if this program is possible and, more importantly, to see if it makes a difference.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you have long argued that we need to take a public health approach when it comes to gun violence. You just used that word again when talking about your research. What exactly does that mean? Because it's not often the way that either gun violence is discussed or addressed.

RANNEY: So as an ER doc, I see the health effects of firearm injuries, but the effects of a gunshot wound go so much further than just that physical damage. It's also the mental damage to the victim, the ripple effect on the community. And the public health approach is about addressing firearm injuries as that ripple effect of health problems and then using a very typical standard of steps to address it. We figure out how common the problem is. We figure out, what are the risk factors? And what protects people, all other things being equal, from getting hurt? And then we design and test interventions. And really, that's the most important part, is that testing. We don't put things in place just because they resonate with us emotionally. We do them because there's science behind it.

This is what we did for cars. We've decreased the number of car crash deaths across the United States by more than 70% not by taking cars off the road but instead by using public health science to put three-point seatbelts in place, by talking about drunk driving, by teaching parents to put their kids in car seats. And because of the lack of federal funding, we've basically been stopped from applying that approach to firearm injury.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you give me a specific example of an intervention that perhaps through your research or other research that other people are doing is promising and might yield results?

RANNEY: Yeah, there are so many. So I think that the research that we're doing with the CDC funding is a great example. Another example is community-based violence intervention programs, where community groups take folks from the community who have escaped from gangs or from a history of violence and work with them to provide support to people in the community. After a gunshot wound, they both support the victims and support the folks in the neighborhood to stop that cycle of retaliatory violence and to help people escape from a sense of hopelessness, which is so often what leads to those shootings.

Yet another example of a public health approach is partnerships between gun shops and public health professionals to talk about suicide prevention. You know, there's been lots of studies showing that most people who kill themselves with a gun do so within seven days of purchasing the firearm. So there are people studying how to stop that from happening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there's also technical stuff - right? - about just the guns themselves, maybe.

RANNEY: Absolutely. I mean, honestly, some of our greatest progress in car safety has come with that technical stuff. And the same thing could be true for guns. There are things like biometric recognitions, fingerprint recognizers. The same things that we have on our iPhones could be used to stop a gun from being stolen or to stop a kid from accidentally picking up their parents' gun and shooting themself or someone else. They're great engineering progress that could be made with a little bit of funding and just for the change in the shift, the way that we think about this. The public health approach takes it from being an us versus them, gun rights versus gun control debate and makes it into a reasonable discussion about, how do we keep all of us safe and healthy? - which is ultimately everyone's goal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr Megan Ranney is an associate professor of emergency medicine and health services at Brown. Thank you very much.

RANNEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.