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Scientists see guns as similar to your bike and your car


Researchers who study injuries at Harborview Medical Center are asking the Seattle City Council to take on the federal government's role -- and fund an investigation into gun violence. They say gun-related injuries are a solvable problem, from a public health perspective.

In fact, they say, it’s not so different from any type of common injury, from crashes to drownings. The Injury Prevention & Research Center at Harborview has had a hand in proving the value of child car-seats and bike helmets, and they’ve created a counseling program that helps alcoholics stop driving while drunk.  

In general, public health investigators use the tools of epidemiology to zoom in on what’s actually causing harm.


“If you look at tobacco, seatbelts, immunizations, we have a history of success. Guns are no different,” said David Fleming, Director of Public Health Seattle & King County, in testimony to the Seattle City Council's Government Performance and Finance committee.  

Harborview hospital also happens to be where most of King County’s gunshot victims end up – an average of about three people a week, according to a recent report.

“Over the past year, I have almost always have a pediatric patient, a child, on my service with a gunshot injury,” Dr. Beth Ebel told the committee. She's a pediatrician who treats patients at the hospital and directs the injury research center.

First solution: more lock-boxes

Back in the 1990s, the Harborview researchers found the biggest danger of having a gun in the house is for suicides. And, contrary to popular belief, the typical suicide gunshot victim acted spontaneously, without much planning.

So, they're big advocates for storing guns in a lock-box. They believe a lock-box could prevent impulsive violence.

The Harborview researchers suspect a large number of gunshot injuries in Washington are related to drug or alcohol dependency, or else some form of mental illness. That’s only a hunch, until it’s backed up with data. For a mere $150,000, they say they could find out, by cross referencing information that’s already collected for hospitals, death records, gun licenses and criminal records. 

Rare request for the city to directly fund science

They haven’t done that study, because of a Congressional ban on federal funding for research into gun violence, which was approved in the 1990s. President Obama recently used an executive order to lift the ban, but no money will come unless Congress agrees.

So, they're asking the Seattle city council to take on the unusual role of directly funding scientific research.

The Council will debate later this month whether that trumps other budget priorities, as part of its supplemental budget, said Councilman Tim Burgess, who was chairing the committee meeting.

Keith Seinfeld has been KPLU’s Health & Science Reporter since 2001, and prior to that covered the Environment beat. He’s been a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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