University researchers lead national effort to study gun violence prevention among children and teens

Tuesday, January 8, 2019 - 2:05pm

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Design by Jack Silberman

Researchers at the University of Michigan are leading a national collaborative effort to study firearm injury and death among children and teens. The interdisciplinary project, comprised of more than 30 researchers, health practitioners, and firearm owners and a dozen academic institutions, seeks a scientific approach to gun violence prevention with respect to gun ownership rights.

The project, known as the Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens Consortium (FACTS) is led by professor of emergency medicine and director of the Injury Prevention Center Rebecca Cunningham, professor of public health Marc Zimmerman, and assistant professor of emergency medicine Patrick Carter. In November 2018, FACTS launched a new website with data, research, videos, courses, fact sheets and other resources on firearm injury prevention, less than a week after the National Rifle Association prompted controversy by tweeting that doctors should “stay in their lane.”

In response to those who argue academics and doctors should not be involved, Cunningham believes gun violence is a public health problem, one that should be addressed with injury prevention science and increased funding for research. 

“The amount of money we have for firearm research still pales in comparison to the amount of funding for cancer, which actually kills less children,” Cunningham said. “Firearms are the second-leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the United States. In the same way that having less car crashes is not political, or less opioid overdoses is not political, having less firearm injuries and deaths is not political.”

The five-year project is funded by a $4.9 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the largest NIH grant for firearm research in 20 years. It has a number of goals, such as developing a research agenda through identifying research questions and priorities, conducting pilot studies to establish groundwork and best practices and creating an online data repository of existing research. These initiatives, according to Cunningham, aim to develop resources in a field that has been largely neglected in the past.

“Firearm prevention is in its infancy. It’s been very much suppressed,” Cunningham said. “FACTS is set up to jumpstart research on firearm violence that has been mostly absent for the past couple of decades. At the end of five years, we will have helped to create a field that is much more active and a group of researchers that are much more knowledgeable.”

Cunningham believes preventing firearm injury includes studying topics such as safe storage of guns and how to work with families with high-risk teenagers, without taking away guns. In addition, given that 2018 was the worst year for gun violence in schools on record, Cunningham expressed the need for further inquiry into whether existing safety measures in schools are effective.

For Cunningham, working as a doctor in the emergency department only further highlights the need to focus on firearm injury prevention.

“One of the things that’s specific about taking care of patients who have been injured by a gun is the lethality of the bullet is such that there’s not as much you can do after the event,” Cunningham said. “We take care of people who have had horrific injuries, but I want to do work so we not have them in the ER in the first place.”

To include non-academics in the project, FACTS created a practitioner advisory board composed of health practitioners, gun owners and stakeholders, pastors, and others involved in the gun violence prevention effort.

Tom O’Connor, who also serves on the board of directors for Gun Owners for Responsible Ownership, is a member of the advisory board. O’Connor highlighted the importance of the firearm injury field, emphasizing that gun owners should be engaged in the conversation.

“With rights come responsibilities… My personal belief is that if gun owners don’t step forward and support solid research and common sense solutions to reducing gun violence, you get policy responses that don’t work and might not make sense,” O’Connor said.

FACTS also hopes to create an active field that will outlast the five year duration of the project, prioritizing the need to train future firearm injury researchers. School of Public Health PhD candidate Amanda Mauri is involved in the FACTS policy taskforce.  She explained being with the project has given her a network of individuals and experts with similar interests.

“What FACTS has really provided me is this great space to interact with the existing renowned researchers within the firearm space,” Mauri said. “I can also connect with other trainees who are interested in firearm-related work both within and outside of Michigan, from the Masters through the Post-Doctoral level.”

Mauri also noted the University is well-positioned to lead this growing field due to its existing infrastructure.

“We have some of the most established firearm researchers in the U.S. The Injury Center is one of the most established ones in the country,” Mauri said. “This is a historic moment for firearm research in that we can finally start adding to the evidence base.”