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Surgeon General’s warning: Firearm violence deserves a public health approach

Advisory echoes mission of OHSU Gun Violence Prevention Research Center, working to reduce firearm fatalities and injuries in Oregon
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Kathleen Carlson, Ph.D., has long dark auburn hair, and is wearing a white top, standing near the OHSU Emergency Department entrance in background.
Kathleen Carlson, Ph.D., writes that reducing firearm violence needn’t be politicized. ‘Just as previous public health initiatives reduced injuries without banning cars or cigarettes, so too can we save lives and prevent suffering from injuries caused by firearms.’ (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, public health’s leading spokesperson, recently issued a landmark advisory on firearm violence, marking an important milestone in addressing firearm violence as a matter of public health.

Kathleen Carlson, Ph.D., has long dark auburn hair, and is wearing a white top, standing in the OHSU BICC library conference room.
Kathleen Carlson, Ph.D. (OHSU)

As director of the Gun Violence Prevention Research Center at Oregon Health & Science University, I could not agree more with taking a public health approach toward reducing the immense harms of firearm violence on our children, families and communities. In fact, Dr. Murthy’s advisory highlights some of the same research, practices and policy strategies encompassing the work of our center to reduce firearm fatalities and injuries in Oregon.

At the center, we are focused on evaluating policies and practices using a public health approach akin to successful efforts in decades past to reduce motor vehicle crashes and tobacco-related disease.

In Multnomah County, we are collaborating with community-based organizations, faith groups, social service agencies, criminal justice organizations and survivors to review incidents of interpersonal gun violence and identify missed opportunities for intervention — in order to prevent these tragedies in the future. Additionally, we are studying the use of Oregon’s Extreme Risk Protection Order law statewide and impact of Healing Hurt People, a hospital-based violence intervention program run by Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, at OHSU and Legacy Emanuel Medical Center.

Our center is also focused on reducing unintentional injuries and firearm suicide, which don’t always generate headlines, but nonetheless drive the vast majority of gun violence injuries and deaths in our state. We are training OHSU medical students to talk with patients about firearm storage practices, and engaging veterans and health care professionals at the VA Portland Health Care System to develop a culturally competent firearm injury prevention toolkit tailored to veterans living in rural areas.

To address a problem, we first must understand the underlying data. To that end, our center worked with state authorities and emergency departments to generate the first statewide firearm injury report and data dashboard in 2022.

Although the issue of firearm violence is complex and often politicized, we believe that preventing the loss of these lives is not a “left” or “right” political issue. Just as previous public health initiatives reduced injuries without banning cars or cigarettes, so too can we save lives and prevent suffering from injuries caused by firearms.

Kathleen Carlson, Ph.D., directs the OHSU Gun Violence Prevention Research Center. She is an injury epidemiologist in the OHSU-Portland State University School of Public Health and a core investigator with the Health Services Research Center of Innovation at the VA Portland.

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