Journal Staff Writer
Posted Oct 2, 2020 at 2:52 PM
PROVIDENCE – Ray Duggan knows gun violence intimately. A former gang member, he was shot five times on Oct. 9, 2004. Shrapnel severed his spinal cord. Paralyzed from the waist down, he would never walk again.
But he would put his life to good purpose. Joining the Nonviolence Institute, Duggan became a street worker with a mission of reducing injury and death by firearm – a cause that institute board member Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency room physician and Brown University associate professor, advances nationally as a public-health issue.
Settling disputes with talk, not bullets, is one message he brings to gang members and others in his work with the Nonviolence Institute. “Guns just make it worse in so many ways,” he told the Journal. “There’s no taking back the gun once you let it go.”
One pull of a trigger and everything changes, in other words. Like Ranney and others in medicine, academia and law enforcement, Duggan has observed an increase of gun violence since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many people into various stages of unaccustomed confinement. “I think it started because of everybody being in the house,” he said. “People are agitated. Mentally, a lot of people took a toll and a lot of it’s coming out now. Unfortunately, it’s coming out in a very aggressive way where innocent people are being hurt. A lot of this is not just gang-related. It’s arguments, domestic [disputes] where people with access to a firearm that shouldn’t get emotional with it.”
As chief research officer for the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine, America’s only nonprofit organization devoted to reducing firearm injury by means of a public health approach, Dr. Ranney understands this well.
“Anecdotally, we’ve seen an increase in gun homicides both in our own state and on a national level during COVID-19,” she told The Journal. “And we think that is for a few reasons. The first is people are home and they don’t have anything to do and people are stressed. Tensions are high and people are hopeless, and people have lost their jobs. So we have this perfect storm of all of the horrible factors that drive people to hurt each other.”
And, she said, to hurt themselves. “We have crime reports for gun homicides,” Ranney said, “but suicides we’re not going to know definitely whether they’ve increased or not for a few months yet because we really depend more on medical examiner data there. But many of us suspect that again because of those factors of hopelessness and loneliness during COVID-19 we are going to see increases.” Increases from an already unacceptable level, Ranney said. “We talk about gun violence in the media and when we do, we think about gang wars or shootings in cities,” Ranney said. “But the reality is that across the United States and even here in Rhode Island, most gun deaths are actually suicide.”
Data that Providence Police Chief Col. Hugh T. Clements Jr. shared with The Journal show a correlation between the pandemic and an increase in gun violence this year in the capital city. As of Tuesday, eight gun homicides had been recorded in the city during the period from March 5 to Sept. 29. That compares to six in all of 2019. Not included in that data is a gun homicide on Thursday.
Also as of Tuesday, the number of shooting victims from March 5 to Sept. 29 was 36, compared to 35 in the full year 2019. With the inclusion of three more victims since Tuesday, the number of pandemic-era victims rises to 39. “In my opinion, there are potentially several colliding factors, including the pandemic,” Clements told The Journal earlier this week. “As well, in particular locally we had two separate large caches of firearms that ended up in the wrong hands in the community. This absolutely had a direct connection to the recent uptick we saw in the back-and-forth gun violence.”
Contrary to what some might expect, the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine does not endorse taking away the rights of people to legally own firearms.
“Oh, God no,” Ranney said. “Our co-founder is himself a gun owner and a rifle safety instructor and that really is one of our basic underlying principles. We are not going to make progress on this issue as long as we keep it an Us Versus Them issue.” Rather, she said, the public-health approach should model other efforts, such as those that have dramatically reduced motor-vehicle fatalities. Seat belts, safer cars and other measures have been the key there, Ranney said – not taking cars away from the general public.
“The first step is we measure what’s happening and who’s affected,” Ranney said. “The second step is we look at risk and protective factors. Who’s getting hurt and why are there reasons why some people escaped injury? Are there things that put someone at risk?
“And then the third step is to create interventions. What can we do to modify risk? Let’s talk about how we can change behavior, how we can get people that are high-risk to put distance between them and the gun so they don’t hurt others or themselves.”
Lockboxes to keep firearms away from children and individuals at risk of suicide or who live with dementia, for example.
“I’ll make a plea that for any of us that do have guns in our home to keep an eye out for our friends and family members who may live with us, or for friends and family members who may own guns, for signs of depression or suicidal thoughts,” Ranney said.
“The very best thing you can do for them is to listen – and make sure that they don’t have easy access to that firearm in that moment of depression and impulsivity. You can separate them from their firearm temporarily, not permanently, until they can get help. [That way], you can potentially save their life.”
Ranney sees improved mental-health interventions as critical – for the many people affected by a shooting, not just the victim. “The effects of firearm injury are clearly health-related problems,” she said. “It’s not only death but also injury and the mental health effects and many long-term consequences for those who do survive, both the actual victims and their families.” Ray Duggan agrees, noting the stresses and trauma that can precede pulling the trigger. “It’s a huge mental-health issue because people just don’t know how to act in handling” life during the pandemic, he said. “They just think, ‘I don’t care no more.’ They don’t understand it’s just psychological and they can come out of this eventually with the right help.”
To learn more about the public-health approach to gun violence, watch a video of Ranney: https://bit.ly/36qd1Na Watch Duggan tell his story: https://youtu.be/4aNgbE6mcss email@example.com (401) 277-7380 On Twitter: @gwaynemiller