Marc Harrison: Research on gun deaths can bridge political divides

During the last 50 years, more Americans have been killed by guns than soldiers who have died in all U.S. wars combined. Yet for the past 20 years, Congress has not funded research that could help reduce the bloodshed.

That may have finally changed.

Last December, the U.S. House and Senate approved a funding bill that includes $25 million to study and prevent gun deaths. As the federal government steps up, our experience in Utah with firearm suicide prevention offers an example to the rest of the country about how to ensure research is translated into action and builds bridges between gun owners, health professionals and policymakers.

While tragic mass shootings capture the headlines, it’s the daily toll of suicides that comprise the bulk of gun deaths. In America, about two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides. Here in Utah, it’s even higher: 85% of all firearm-related deaths are suicides. That’s a tragedy that everyone wants to address, regardless of one’s attitudes towards gun ownership. This is not a politically partisan or pro-gun or anti-gun issue.

The fact that gun-owning households are particularly hard hit by this issue puts them in a unique position to create change. In our state, we have an engaged coalition of gun owners collaborating with health, government and research teams to find practical solutions on this common ground issue. As suicide prevention activities are implemented, we depend on these different perspectives to guide our approach.

At Intermountain Healthcare, a focus on firearm safety is a crucial part of our comprehensive suicide prevention strategy because firearms are the most common and fatal method of suicide. We assumed this focus in large part because our gun advocacy community encouraged us to do so.

Safety is a central tenet of firearm ownership; the notion of temporarily putting time and distance between a gun and a person who is going through an emotionally tumultuous time is not controversial – it is common sense.

Just as we would take the car keys of a friend who has been drinking, there are times we need to watch over the guns of a friend for a little while, or keep them out of reach while we have impulsive teens and curious children at home.

We could not do this work without quality research. International, population-level studies indicate that when widely used, highly lethal means, such as guns, are made less available or less lethal, suicide rates overall decline by 30 to 50 percent.

In 2016, the Utah Legislature passed HB 440, calling for a suicide prevention and gun study. This legislation had bipartisan and broad-based support. The findings provide us with data that are directly informing prevention.

The work is just beginning. With support and input from gun owners, we are training health professionals across our state with Counseling on Access to Lethal Means (CALM) training, which aims to reduce access to guns for individuals at risk for suicide. In the past year, we trained over 1,000 health professionals in CALM. This year we’ll train even more and also work toward making gun locks and educational information widely available in pharmacies, clinics and hospitals in our region.

In addition, Intermountain and others recently came together with government, faith, business, research and firearm stakeholders to announce a $2 million statewide media and education campaign that includes a major focus on establishing a new social norm: no person in suicidal crisis should have ready access to a firearm.

This venture — in which private donations were matched by public dollars — represents the first time Utah has taken on a comprehensive, population-oriented, rigorously-evaluated campaign around suicide.

As we applaud the long-awaited flow of federal research to help reduce gun deaths, I hope studies will be dedicated to reducing firearm suicide and improving gun safety. I also hope we will recognize what an opportunity this is to find common ground.

Far from dividing us, gun-related research can bring people and data together to drive collective action. May we begin this new decade by not only welcoming research, but working collaboratively with diverse partners who make our efforts successful, and ultimately save lives.

Marc Harrison, M.D.

Marc Harrison, M.D., is president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare. Intermountain operates medical facilities in Utah, Idaho and Nevada, and provides telehealth services in nine states.