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Changing the conversation about gun violence

By Josh Friesen
For Ignite Magazine
Photos by Jason Hill

Gun violence in the U.S. is a public health crisis, and injury epidemiologist Kathleen Carlson, Ph.D., is trying to figure out why.

“As an epidemiologist, we quantify health conditions. We’re still working on the challenge of quantifying gun violence in our populations,” said Carlson, director of the OHSU Gun Violence Prevention Research Center and professor of public health in the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. “We’re working toward a total, inherent understanding of firearm injury as a public health issue that has solutions.”

Carlson had always been interested in injury and violence prevention. Early in her career, she examined trends and patterns associated with everything from occupational injury and falls to sports injury and motor vehicle crashes.

Kathleen Carlson

One glaring exclusion, however, was in the realm of gun violence. Injury epidemiologists could not construct a clear picture of the injury and violence prevention landscape regarding firearms, in large part due to a congressional moratorium levied in 1996 that effectively banned federal funding for firearm injury prevention research. For years, the restriction stymied researchers like Carlson who wanted to study gun injury as a public health and safety issue.

Then on December 14, 2012, a gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In the wake of that unthinkable tragedy, things began to change and restrictions preventing research began to loosen.

Carlson knew what she had to do.

“That got me thinking, ‘I really need to do something. I’m a parent of elementary-aged kids. I have the skillset. I have the passion. I need to do something in this arena,’” Carlson said.

We’re working toward a total, inherent understanding of firearm injury as a public health issue that has solutions.

Kathleen Carlson

For the last decade, Carlson’s work has positioned OHSU as a national leader in understanding the public health toll of firearm injury. She is a founding member of the Gun Violence as a Public Health Issue Initiative, an OHSU-PSU collaboration that brings researchers, health care professionals and community members together to leverage public health tools to reduce firearm injury. The OHSU Faculty Innovation and Excellence Award, made possible by the Silver Family Innovation Fund, also helped Carlson establish the OHSU Gun Violence Prevention Research Center, which serves as the go-to source of credible data on firearm injuries in our region.

Carlson is working with the Oregon Public Health Division to lead a first-of-its-kind analysis of data on firearm injuries treated in Oregon’s emergency departments. This work paints a picture of the firearm injury landscape across the state, revealing troubling increases in gun violence each year and underscoring the need for solutions. In December of 2023, Carlson’s team launched the Gun Violence Review Commission in Multnomah County, which brings together leaders with lived experience and across numerous disciplines — including health care, education, community violence intervention, law enforcement and public health — to identify and repair root causes of gun discharges and injuries in our region.

Curbing gun violence in the U.S. is a challenging undertaking. Carlson is optimistic the work will pay off.

“There is so much we haven’t done that we can still do, need to do and will do,” she said. “Things are moving, and we’re seeing progress.”

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