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Utah's Headstart In Studying Guns As A Public Health Issue

Photo of Utah Capitol.
Austen Diamond for KUER
In 2016 the Utah Legislature passed a law to study gun deaths in the state. The resulting 2018 report was published by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

With two new mass shootings over the weekend and renewed calls for action across the country, medical organizations are increasingly advocating to treat gun violence as a public health issue. Research into the factors behind firearm violence can be difficult to do through federal agencies, but here in Utah, it has been done before.

In 2016 the Utah Legislature passed a law to study gun deaths in the state. The resulting 2018 report was published by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. It had bipartisan support, including local gun rights advocates. The focus was “suicide and firearm injury in Utah,” but according to one researcher involved in the study, it included information that could be relevant to understanding mass shooters as well.

“Many of the same risk factors exist. Many of the people who are involved in perpetrating these events often have suicidal tendencies,” said Dr. Morissa Henn, community health program director at Intermountain Healthcare. Henn worked on the Harvard study while earning her doctorate in public health.

Among the study’s findings:

“Most suicide decedents [victims] (about 87%) could have passed a background check for firearm possession on the day of death.” “Utahns with poor mental health and those with potential drinking issues do not appear to be hearing the message … to store guns locked or away from home.” “Random attacks by a stranger or robbery homicides of non-criminally-involved people whether at home, at a place of business, or in public, occurred an estimated 3-4 times a year.” “85% of firearm deaths in Utah were suicides 2006-2015.”

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) lack funds to study guns, Henn said. 

Many in the public health community blame the Dickey Amendment, a 1996 provision restricting funds that could be seen as advocating or promoting gun control, which resulted in a chilling effect on federal gun research.

The Utah study was born out of an unlikely partnership between the Harvard team and the Utah Shooting Sports Council.

“We’re just like everybody else. We grieve the same way over the senseless loss of life,” said Clark Aposhian, referring to the recent spate of shootings. Aposhian is the chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council and one of the leading gun advocates in the state.

Aposhian agrees with Henn that although focused on suicide, the 2018 study might offer some perspective into the mentality of active shooters.

“I believe there is certainly some merit to reviewing the connection between suicides, homicides and, to a lesser extent, the multiple victim shootings,” Aposhian said. “I think they go in with the forethought of ‘I’m going to kill as many people [as possible] and then kill myself.’”

Barriers To Gun Restrictions

The shootings in Ohio and Texas over the weekend that left more than 30 people dead already sparked discussion about so-called “red flag laws” from President Donald Trump and elected officials in Utah.

Red flag laws allow a judge to order a person’s firearms be confiscated if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others. State Rep. Steve Handy (R-Layton) proposed such a bill in Utah during the 2019 legislative session but it faced resistance from his fellow Republican lawmakers.

“I’ve been just thrashed by Second Amendment folks that it’s a gun grab,” Handy said, “It’s not a gun grab. It’s decided by a judge, temporarily.”

Handy didn’t even get a hearing during this year’s session, but he’s said he plans to run the proposal again in 2020.

“With the frequent occurrence of these things, it’s just horrific and you never know what’s going to happen. Why not have something reasonable like this?” Handy said.

Aposhian with the Shooting Sports Council said there is merit to identifying people who are dangerous to themselves and others, though he said he’s afraid of constitutional rights being abused under red flag laws. He also said these laws do little to help individuals.

“They’re a dangerous person and all we’re doing is taking the firearms away. That still leaves a dangerous person,” Aposhian said.

The insights collected for Morissa Henn’s 2018 Harvard study may offer a more data-driven starting place to understand and respond to gun fatalities in Utah. And like the impetus for conducting the study, it might offer an opportunity for different groups to come together on policy.

“It is an important moment for us to understand our roles in taking a public health approach,” Henn said, “in understanding the data, in working together to say ‘What can we do to prevent this bloodshed?’”

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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