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Your Washington Doctor May Soon Ask If You Own A Gun

Will James
Leaders of Washington State medical groups met at Harborview Medical Center to discuss gun violence on June 19, 2018

Washington doctors say they plan to do more to prevent gun-related injuries and deaths, including asking patients whether they own guns and screening them for risk of using a gun in suicide.

Leaders of 10 public health agencies and professional groups, including the Washington State Medical Association and the Washington State Nurses Association, announced the effort in a statement Tuesday.

"As healthcare providers, we recognize firearm-related injury and death as a public health epidemic," the statement said. 

Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Seattle and King County's public health agency, said the coalition plans to release guidelines to doctors on how to screen patients for risk of gun-related death and talk to them about it. 

"The mass shootings, the increase in suicides has re-energized a lot of the community, the public health community and the medical community, to say, 'We need to do better,'" Duchin said.

In Washington, 682 people died of gunshot wounds in 2016. Suicides account for three-quarters of all gun deaths in the state.

Dr. Beth Ebel, a pediatrician at the University of Washington, said she sees children with gunshot wounds on a regular basis. 

"We had a child who died at the hospital this weekend who took her life with a gun she was able to get her hands on," she said. "Thirteen-year-old girl. So this is a routine — a terrible, terrible routine event."

Ebel said she regularly asks patients' families whether they own guns, and whether they should, given the dangers.

Having a gun in the home, statistically, puts residents of the home at higher risk of death by homicide or suicide. Adolescents with access to guns are 2.6 times more likely to die by suicide as those without access.

When Ebel hears a family does have a gun in the home, she talks to them about securing it. 

"I talk to families very objectively to say, 'Look, let's think about what you could do to keep that gun safe so your kid doesn't find it,'" she said.

Ebel said doctors shouldn't fear awkwardness or worry they're wading into a political discussion. 

"We, as doctors, have good relationships with the people we care for," she said. "When I talk about gun violence, I talk about it as I do other public health things. If I'm talking to someone who's a parent of a teenager, we're talking about school. So this is one piece of what I'm talking to a family about." 

Doctors at a news conference Tuesday also called for more local and statewide research that could help identify those at risk gun violence and evaluate the effectiveness of policies designed to prevent it. 

Such research has been lacking. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not funded research into gun violence since 1996, when Congress passed an amendment forbidding the agency from using money to "advocate or promote gun control."

Dr. Fred Rivara, the founding director of the Harborview Injury and Research Center, called for a state-funded research center focused on gun violence to be located at Harborview, similar to an effort in California.

"Over the last the 75 years, there's been a 95 percent reduction in motor vehicle crash fatailites," Rivara said. "That has not happened for firearms. It happened for motor vehicles because of a lot of research on how do we make cars safer, how do we make roads safer." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.