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CU School of Medicine Launches Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative

New $4.5 million campus initiative brings researchers, experts, and communities together to prevent firearm deaths nationwide.

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Written by Colleen Miracle on April 24, 2023

The University of Colorado School of Medicine has officially launched the Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative, bringing CU Anschutz experts together to serve as a trusted community and national resource for firearms-related research and solutions.

Led by Emmy Betz, MD, MPH, the Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative will conduct and disseminate research on effective approaches to reduce injury and death, design resources and tools for practice, mentor future firearm injury prevention professionals, and work alongside local communities to develop effective and relevant solutions.

Firearms are a growing cause of death in the U.S., and the CU School of Medicine is positioned to be a leading voice on this public health crisis. The initiative is led by the Department of Emergency Medicine with support from the CU School of Medicine Dean’s Office and the departments of medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery. The initiative has previously received support from the Injury & Violence Prevention Center, which is a collaboration between the Colorado School of Public Health and the CU School of Medicine.

The initiative looks at real-world implications and implementation, centered on preventing firearm harm of all types, including suicide, domestic violence, unintentional shootings, community violence, school violence, mass shootings, and police-involved shootings.

In 2020, Colorado had the 22nd highest firearm death rate in the U.S. and the seventh highest suicide death rate. Between 2016 and 2020, there were 4,248 firearm deaths in Colorado. Seventy-five percent of those deaths were by suicide, and twenty-one percent were by homicide. Recent high-profile incidents in Colorado, such as the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, which left five dead and 18 injured in November 2022, and the East High School shooting in Denver in March 2023 underscore the importance of the initiative’s mission.

“We feel the impact as clinicians and community members, from mass shootings but also from the daily toll of firearm deaths from suicide and community violence” says Betz, director of the initiative and professor of emergency medicine. “I am grateful to the School of Medicine and campus leaders for supporting us in addressing the public health crisis of firearm injury.” 

Local and national collaboration

Connecting with impacted communities is vital, initiative leaders say. CU faculty, researchers, and initiative staff collaborate with public health professionals, clinicians, policymakers, and local communities. Learning from and alongside the communities in addition to providing trainings is a primary focus for collaboration.

Colorado has a strong culture of hunting, ranching, sport shooting, and firearm ownership, which provides unique opportunities for outreach and partnership with firearm-owning communities.

Attending gun shows to distribute locking devices and connecting with local organizations is one of several educational areas for the initiative. Betz co-founded and co-leads the Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition, a collaborative effort between public health and medical professionals and firearm retailers to reduce firearm suicides. Joe Simonetti, MD, MPH, director of mentorship and education for the initiative, leads panel discussions locally and nationally and meets with school district leaders to support school safety considerations.

“The School of Medicine’s investment in the initiative means a tremendous amount for the future of firearm injury prevention,” says Simonetti. “This gives us the opportunity to build infrastructure and support faculty to ensure we’re able to provide outstanding mentorship and training for the next generation of researchers and public health practitioners.” 

The initiative is also working with Colorado's military community, which includes seven military bases, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the CU Center for Combat Medicine and Battlefield (COMBAT) Research. The initiative aims to serve as a primary local resource for research and education on lethal means safety suicide prevention, mental health support, and military community engagement on injury prevention. Near the CU Anschutz campus, the initiative is working closely with Buckley Space Force Base leadership on tactics to prevent firearm-related injuries in military settings.

The initiative’s connection to impacted communities reaches beyond Colorado. Through regular webinars, the initiative hosts discussions on topics such as firearm storage, rural community violence intervention, and changing narratives on reporting firearm violence.  

Connecting research to practice

Faculty research spans a broad range of areas related to firearm injury across the lifespan of a person, from health care provider counseling to community-based programs.

A current project led by Betz and Erin Kelly, DrPH, MA, director of research and evaluation for the initiative, in collaboration with the Colorado Office of Gun Violence Prevention in the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, focuses on the development and maintenance of a resource bank as a repository for data, research, and statistical information regarding firearm injuries and deaths, and their prevention, in Colorado. 

Another project, led by Betz and Chris Knoepke, PhD, MSW, LCSW, law enforcement lead for the initiative, is examining training for Extreme Risk Protection Orders. With funding from the Fund for a Safer Future, the study team is partnering with the Colorado Attorney General's Office to identify and address law enforcement training needs for so-called "red flag" laws.

Commitment from CU School of Medicine and CU Anschutz partners will support the growth of the initiative, including hiring additional research faculty and addressing a public health crisis that rapidly increases every year.

“We want our collaborators to know that we have a common goal of health and security, respect for diversity, and consideration of a range of views. We must engage with impacted communities and those with lived experiences to be a well-rounded initiative,” says Betz. “We must address this public health crisis with research, education, and collaboration.”