A recent rash of shootings in Seattle has city officials working on increasing downtown’s police presence and other efforts to increase safety.
Gun violence is not an issue unique to the city, nor are the underlying factors, but limited research makes it difficult to fully understand the disparities and social determinants that cause a person to pick up a firearm with intent to do harm.
Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, University of Washington Bartley Dobb Professor for the Study and Prevention of Violence, is currently in the middle of a study of geographic blocks in King County to make the connection between firearm injuries and death and poverty, racism, inequality and other health determinants.
“We call some of these things fundamental causes,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “We know that there are vulnerable populations that are at high risk of gun violence.”
This is the fourth in a series of research projects through UW’s School of Public Health that have been funded by the Grandmothers Against Gun Violence (GAGV), which formed a new foundation in April to continue this work.
“It’s a hard status to get, by the way,” said Grandmothers Against Gun Violence Foundation secretary Jill McKinstry.
Rowhani-Rahbar first met with GAGV members in 2017, who approached him following a community presentation he’d given. They shared their vision and talked about how to collaborate on research-based advocacy work.
“We felt that the issue of firearm storage and understanding and characterizing firearm ownership and storage was very important in our state,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “We have some really rock-solid evidence — scientific evidence — that is really defensible, that shows safe storage can prevent teen suicide and accidental shootings.”
GAGV has funded three studies focused on safe firearm storage practices, particularly for children and seniors, one of which McKinstry said influenced Seattle and King County’s safe storage laws.
Rowhani-Rahbar said it was only a few weeks after the first scientific paper published that Seattle announced its safe storage policy, followed by King County, and then Initiative 1639, which passed in November 2018 and took effect last year.
While Grandmothers Against Gun Violence continues to advocate for stricter gun control policies, the new foundation was formed to continue pursuing research to support the advocacy side of the parent organization, said GAGVF chair Kay Beisse.
The research may be focused locally, Beisse said, but the studies have national application and implications.
GAGVF provided $15,000 to the UW School of Public Health last November to look at the underlying conditions in parts of King County that make some neighborhoods more susceptible to gun violence, Beisse said. When grandmothers talk to service providers attempting to address these issues, there are some factors that get brought up, such as youth dropping out of school, unemployment or underemployment, and people unwilling to give up firearms due to concerns for their own safety, Beisse said.
“It’s not a lot of money, in the big picture,” Beisse said about the $15,000 in funding.
Rowhani-Rahbar said federal funding for gun violence research has been on the decline since the mid-‘90s, with more foundations and grassroots organizations stepping up since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 and Parkland mass shooting in 2018.
GAGVF member Yvonne Banks said Grandmothers Against Gun Violence was started here in the Puget Sound region by grandmothers affected by the Sandy Hook shooting, where 26 people were killed; 20 were children.
GAGV has been out with Moms Demand Action and Operation Ceasefire to advocate for effective programs and policies, McKinstry said, including Initiative 594, which closed gun sale loopholes for unlicensed sellers online and at gun shows, and Initiative 1491, which allows courts and law enforcement to temporarily seize firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.
Extreme risk protection orders have been in use in Washington for more than three years now, Rowhan-Rahbar said, and are being implemented in more cities, counties and states in response to mass shootings across the country and a better understanding of the warning signs that were missed before they occurred.
The Second Amendment isn’t going to change, he said, and it’s comprehensive data and research that will allow for preserving gun ownership as a constitutional right while also enacting policies that reduce instances of gun violence.
“I think that’s the whole key is paths to solutions for these [findings],” Banks said.
Rowhan-Rahbar said organizations like GAGVF have helped make an impact at the local level, the nonprofit’s funding, which resulted in three papers that were published The American Journal of Public Health, Journal of the American Medical Association — Pediatrics, and the The Annals of Internal Medicine. It also supported a graduate student to work with Rowhan-Rahbar, he said.
“Now she’s doing research in this area,” he said. “She’s becoming a well-known person in her own.”
The Center for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health (NIH) were just approved for $25 million in federal funds to study gun violence through a 2019 spending bill passed by Congress, which Rowhan-Rahbar said is a historic development.
McKinstry said she’s happy that Harborview Medical Center, which deals with many gun violence injuries in King County, was approved last year to receive $1 million in funding for its own research.
Beisse said the hope is to use results of the latest study GAGVF is funding, which seeks to find out why some neighborhoods experience more gun violence than others, to support local on-the-ground programs already working on solutions in those communities. A paper on that research project is anticipated to come out this summer, she said.
People can read the papers from the last three studies, sign up to volunteer with GAGVF or provide a donation at foundationgrandmothersagainstgunviolence.org. The nonprofit can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.