By Lynne Terry / Oregon Capital Chronicle / May 31, 2022

A center on gun violence is in the making in Oregon.

A researcher at Oregon Health & Science University and the VA Portland Health Care System, recently obtained a grant to create a Gun Violence Prevention Research Center to step up research on gun deaths and injuries, their causes and strategies for prevention. Kathleen Carlson, an epidemiologist and gun injury researcher, said the grant of $250,000 a year for three years is enough to hire staff and become a resource center for data on gun violence and injuries in Oregon and across the region.

Kathleen Carlson, gun violence researcher (Oregon Health & Science University)

“The purpose is to understand the problem and evaluate effective interventions including public policy choices,” Carlson said. “That includes the root causes of violence, such as historical disinvestment in communities of color, and how to reverse the tide of those causes, how to keep people safe in the event of a shooting and how to keep them alive after a traumatic injury has occurred.”  

Though mass shootings like the attack against a supermarket in Buffalo, New York and last week’s massacre in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas make gun violence and safety research seem all the more urgent, Carlson said the public needs to realize that the United States has the equivalent of a mass shooting every day because so many people die. But these deaths and mass shootings are not inevitable, Carlson said. 

“Just like any other public health crisis, finding solutions depends on a full understanding of the problem. Scientifically based research is essential in understanding gun violence and its solutions,” Carlsoon said.

The grant, from the Robert B. Silvers Foundation in New York, is part of a growing interest nationwide in understanding the causes of gun violence, she said. For years, federal funding of gun-related research had been banned by Congress.

“The NRA lobbied Congress to add an amendment to budget appropriations to the CDC, saying that if the CDC supported any research that could lead to gun control advocacy, they would lose their entire budget,” Carlson said. “This went on for 20 years.”

She said former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, pushed for renewed federal funding after the 2012 massacre in Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children aged 6 and 7. 

In 2015, Carlson received a federal grant to study gun injuries in Oregon. Her research focused on veterans.

“We learned that a lot of veterans were experiencing nonfatal gun injuries and many that were unintentional,” Carlson said. “No one had been talking about that.”

She obtained funding from Veterans Affairs to focus on developing firearm safety programs.

In her research, she’s discovered that intoxicants are often linked to gun violence.

“What we learn about those injuries also informs our work about violent injuries. For example, substances often play a role in firearm injuries of all intents. And we’re examining the role of substance use, and proximity to retail substance outlets, in firearm deaths across our state,” Carlson said.

She chairs an advisory committee that is part of an initiative that dates to 2016. 

“It is focused on generating and supporting and driving forward all things about education, research and action around advocacy related to gun violence,” Carlson said.

Her research aims to collect data and evaluate novel interventions to help policymakers who craft policies.

The initiative includes faculty from OHSU and Portland State University, clinicians, health care officials, students and community representatives who are dedicated to reducing gun violence. 

The researchers track gun-related injuries of patients treated at the state’s highest level trauma centers. Oregon only has two, and they’re both in Portland – OHSU and Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. 

Gun deaths – and injuries – continue to rise, Carlson said.

“The number of gun deaths in our state as well as nationally have been increasing year after year after year for the last 10, 15, maybe 20 years,” Carlson said. 

According to Oregon Health Authority data, there were 519 firearm deaths in Oregon in 2018, 566 in 2019 and 593 in 2020, the latest year available.

Research shows that males are six times more likely than women to die from a gunshot wound. Guns also play a major role in suicide.

“Firearms are the primary means used in suicides, accounting for over 50% of suicide deaths in 2019,” Rachael Banks, Oregon’s public health director, said in a statement to the Legislature last year. She said suicide deaths by firearm are disproportionately higher in rural areas but by far the biggest numbers of firearm deaths are in urban areas.

Between 2010 and 2019, 730 people were killed by firearms in Multnomah County, according to health authority data. Firearm deaths in Lane County followed, with 509 people killed. Washington County had 437 deaths and 404 people died in Clackamas County over that time period.

Carlson said research shows that eradicating urban blight and adding green spaces helps prevent gun deaths. It’s not clear why, though she said that getting rid of vacant lots and vacant houses reduces potential hiding places for guns. She also said that in greener areas, more people tend to be outside.

Research has also established that curtailing access to guns also reduces injuries and deaths.

“If you make access easier, the numbers of injuries and deaths go up,” Carlson said.

But reducing access is a hot-button topic. “A lot of people really believe in firearm ownership,” Carlson said.

Gun experts say Oregon has fewer restrictions on firearms and many other states. Background checks are required for firearm purchases at gun shows and by licensed dealers. Oregon also has a “red flag” law that allows police, spouses and immediate family or household members to petition a judge for temporary restrictions on the purchase or possession of a firearm by a person at risk of hurting themselves or others. And owners are required to lock up firearms when they’re not in use. 

Machine guns and silencers are banned but not assault weapons. There is no waiting period for a purchase, no limits on the number of weapons a person can buy and no law banning openly carrying a firearm. Purchasers have to be 18.

Oregon’s laws are far looser than California, which has some of the tightest restrictions nationwide, and slightly less restrictive than Washington, which has a waiting period and requires purchasers to be 21.

Carlson has found in her research that Oregon pays a price for being less restrictive.

“Our rates of injury are considerably higher than our neighbors to the north and the south,” Carlson said.

She said one problem is that Oregon lacks a law requiring gun owners to obtain a license.

“I’ve seen a lot of resistance against it,” Carlson said. “In Oregon, there’s this pioneer spirit and stress on individual liberties. Our population is a bit different than Washington and California, which has surprised me.”

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