for Prevention

Promoting Firearm Safety and Preventing Firearm Violence: What Clinicians Can Do

July 2019

Michael Jan, MD, PhD, MPH

Isabelle Sternfeld, MSPH

Andrea Welsing, MPH

Rashmi Shetgiri, MD, MSHS, MSCS

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Recurrent tragedies of mass shooting incidents in the United States have brought increasing attention to the issue of firearm violence and its implications for public health and safety.1-3 Moreover, mortality from firearm homicide and firearm suicide, which occur daily in communities throughout the nation, far exceeds mortality from mass shootings.4 This article provides relevant local statistics, features national medical society recommendations, and summarizes potential areas for clinician action in Los Angeles County, as well as nationally.


Key Points

  • Firearm violence is a persistent problem that negatively impacts public health.
  • Numerous professional medical organizations have identified health care providers as having key roles in firearm safety promotion and prevention of firearm violence.
  • Periodic screening for risks potentially associated with firearm violence allows for early intervention and connections to resources that can help to prevent firearm violence.
  • Research to characterize the current state of firearm violence is essential in shaping future prevention and health promotion efforts.
  • As firearm violence research continues to grow, there will be a need for clinicians to stay up to date on key findings.
  • There are numerous opportunities for clinicians to advocate for firearm safety.


Local Firearm Injury Trends

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program routinely collects and publishes local data on firearm violence on its Injury Data and Reports page.5 From 2010-2016, there were 5,206 firearm-related deaths reported in Los Angeles County; 3,102 (60%) of these were homicides, 1,976 (38%) were suicides, and 128 (2%) were from other causes.6 More than 90% of homicides and suicides in the county were among males (Figure 1). There was also considerable variation by race and ethnicity and type of firearm death. The rate of firearm-related homicide was 16 times higher among blacks and nearly four times higher among Latinos than among whites (Figure 2). Asians had the lowest rate. In contrast, whites had the highest firearm-related suicide rate, followed by blacks, Latinos, and Asians (Figure 3).

*Other causes were reported as law-enforcement related (89), accidental (26), and undetermined (13).6


Figure 1. Homicide and Suicide Firearm Deaths by Gender
Los Angeles County, 2010 – 2016

Firearm deaths by gender
Source: Mortality data from the California Department of Public Health. Data compiled by Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program on 11/21/2017.


Figure 2. Firearm Homicide Rates* by Race and Ethnicity
Los Angeles County, 2010 – 2016

Firearm homicides by race/ethnicity
*All rates per 100,000 population. Overall rates by race and ethnicity are age-adjusted to the 2000 U.S. population. Rates cannot be calculated for other race and ethnicity categories because the numbers are too small to ensure accuracy.

Source: Mortality data from the California Department of Public Health. Data compiled by Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program on 6/20/2019.


Figure 3. Firearm Suicide Rates* by Race and Ethnicity
Los Angeles County, 2010 – 2016

Firearm suicides by race/ethnicity
*All rates per 100,000 population. Overall rates by race and ethnicity are age-adjusted to the 2000 U.S. population. Rates cannot be calculated for other race and ethnicity categories because the numbers are too small to ensure accuracy.

Source: Mortality data from the California Department of Public Health. Data compiled by Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program on 6/20/2019.


National Calls to Action

For more than 25 years, professional medical organizations have issued policy statements and published position papers on firearm safety and violence prevention.7 In 2015, a joint call to action was made by 8 health professional organizations allied with the American Bar Association.8 Within 5 months, this call to action was echoed and endorsed by more than 50 health-allied organizations.9 These organizations have called for changes related to safer firearm design, universal background checks, firearm licensing and registration, patient screening and counseling, access to mental health services, and further research.

The table "Firearm Violence Policies and Positions of Medical-Allied Professional Organizations" summarizes recommendations from 15 organizations that have detailed their reasoning in published materials. Of the myriad roles available to clinicians in promoting firearm safety and preventing firearm violence, there are 3 areas with great potential for clinician impact: patient screening and counseling, engaging in research and early adoption of evidence-based violence prevention efforts, and advocacy.10,11 This article describes recommendations for clinicians in each of these areas.


Screening and Counseling

Observational research studies have identified a number of risk factors for firearm violence that have informed current screening recommendations, including screening for the following:7,12-19

  • Firearm safety and storage
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Depression and suicidality
  • Exposure to violence and abuse

While a detailed discussion of substance use, mental health, and violence screenings is beyond the scope of this article, selected screening and counseling tools are included under Resources, in the Screening Tools section.

Firearm Screening and Counseling

A simple question such as “Are any firearms kept in or around your home?” is recommended to determine if there is a firearm in the home.20 If there are firearms in the home, the “5 L’s” mnemonic can guide a discussion of the various aspects of safer firearm ownership.21

“5 L’s” Mnemonic

  • Locked – Is the firearm stored in a safe or is a trigger/cable lock in place?
  • Loaded – Is the firearm loaded?
  • Little children – Are little children present?
  • feeling Low – Is the firearm owner or other members of the household at risk for suicide?
  • Learned owner – Has the firearm owner received safety training?

The following resources may be useful for education regarding safe storage and can help facilitate discussions about firearm safety:

  • Seattle & King County Department of Public Health’s visual reference guide of firearm safety devices22
  • State of California Department of Justice’s Firearm Safety website, which includes sections on basic firearm safety rules, firearm owner responsibilities regarding children, rules for children, methods of childproofing firearms, firearm safety certification, as well as a tool to find safety devices that are compatible with specific firearms23,24
  • Women Against Gun Violence’s The TALK Project, which provides guidance to parents on keeping children safe from firearms inside and outside of the home.25



Federal restrictions on funding for firearm-related research dating back to the 1990s have limited the ability to investigate factors contributing to firearm violence and interventions to address these factors.20,26,27 Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was given the authority to conduct research on the causes of firearm violence by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, although the CDC and other federal agencies are still restricted from using federal funding to research firearm control.28,29

Physician-led initiatives like the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine (AFFIRM) and the University of California Davis Violence Prevention Research Program are beginning to structure and guide research agendas.30 A consensus committee identified 59 firearm violence research questions relevant to the practice of emergency medicine alone.31 The aim of some of these research questions is to characterize the current situation (e.g., who is at risk and who should be screened?) before moving ahead to assessing interventions (e.g., what is effective?). Additional areas that require more research are identifying the root causes that lead to firearm violence and methods to effectively address these underlying issues.

As the findings from these and other firearm injury studies become available, it will be important for clinicians to adopt evidence-based interventions that have been found to decrease injury and death from firearms.




There have been many calls for clinicians to engage in advocacy efforts to reduce death and injury from firearms.8,10,32 The "Firearm Violence Policies and Positions" table lists a wide range of possible starting points for clinicians to learn about firearm violence prevention efforts and ways to advocate for firearm safety. For instance, clinicians can advocate for policies that change background check requirements, promote safe firearm storage, strengthen the enforcement of existing laws, or lift barriers for federal research funding.

Of note, while the policy and position statements in the table summarize the most recently published statements of each professional organization listed, advocacy needs shift. For instance, the recommendation by multiple organizations that the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) be established in all states became a reality in 2018 (including in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia).33

Table. Firearm Violence Policies and Positions of Medical-Allied Professional Organizations

Table of Firearm violence policies and positions of medical-allied profesional organizations

Click the image to view or download the table.

The Research and Development (RAND) Corporation is conducting an ongoing analysis of the effectiveness of U.S. firearm policies. While the evidence is relatively limited due to longstanding limitations on firearm research,26,27,34 the findings can help clinicians prioritize possible advocacy activities. Thus far, RAND researchers have found strong evidence about the effects of laws that limit children’s access to firearms and/or impose penalties to adults whose firearms are accessed by children. Such laws are associated with decreased self-injury, suicide, and unintentional injury. There is moderate evidence to support the association between background checks and decreased suicide and homicide. Some evidence supports the association between minimum purchasing age requirements and decreased suicide among children. Finally, some evidence supports the association between concealed-carry permits and increased violent crime and unintentional injury.34 It is expected that ongoing research and advocacy will build upon these findings.

Clinicians interested in addressing firearm violence at the local, state, or national levels can do so in many ways. The article in this issue, “Making Your Voice Heard: How to be an Effective Health Advocate,” features a ladder of engagement with ideas for clinician advocacy ranging from lower time commitments, such as signing a petition or posting on social media, to higher engagement efforts, such as writing an op-ed, communicating with legislators, speaking at community meetings, or joining a coalition. Clinicians can also communicate the importance of funding that is explicitly dedicated to studying firearm violence. A selection of national and local resources is included below in Resources, under Advocacy and Community Engagement.


Los Angeles County Actions to Prevent Firearm Violence

There is a growing commitment to prevent injury caused by firearm violence in LA County. In 2018, the County of Los Angeles took action to support a range of firearm violence prevention bills in the California Legislature.35 The County supported legislation that was aligned with its current Board-approved legislative policies on matters related to: 1) firearm control, access and availability; 2) child safety; 3) fostering socially and emotionally healthy school environments; 4) mental health awareness; and 5) violence prevention.

More recently, the Board of Supervisors proclaimed June 2, 2019 as Gun Violence Awareness Day, joining other jurisdictions in support of research into the causes and solutions to firearm violence including policy change at the federal level.36,37 In addition, on February 19, 2019, the Board of Supervisors expanded local infrastructure to prevent violence by approving the establishment of a County Office of Violence Prevention. The Office is situated within the Department of Public Health in recognition that violence is a significant public health issue that requires a multi-sector, prevention-oriented response. The Office is currently developing an integrated and comprehensive approach to addressing all forms of violence, for which health care providers can play a key role. Clinicians interested in this area are encouraged to visit the Countywide Office of Violence Prevention website and contact the Injury and Violence Prevention Program to discuss engagement opportunities: email or call 213-351-1901.



Firearm violence is a preventable cause of morbidity and mortality that may be mitigated in part by focused clinician efforts. While there are myriad roles that health care providers can play, this article has focused on 3 areas with greater potential for impact. In clinical settings, screening for risk factors associated with firearm violence may lead to timely interventions. Conducting firearm research can contribute to a growing body of scientific evidence, while early adoption of evidence-based violence prevention efforts may decrease injury and death. Advocacy can help shape policies and public health messaging around firearm safety and violence prevention. Finally, clinicians can partner with other sectors, including the LA County Department of Public Health, to work to end the epidemic of violence.



Screening Tools

Advocacy and Community Engagement



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  5. Injury Data and Reports. Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Injury and Violence Prevention Program Web site.
  6. Mortality Data. California Department of Public Health. Data compiled by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Division of Chronic Disease and Injury and Violence Prevention, Injury and Violence Prevention Program on 6/24/2019. 
  7. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention. Firearm injuries affecting the pediatric population. Pediatrics. 1992;89(4):788-790.
  8. Weinberger SE, Hoyt DB, Lawrence HC 3rd, et al. Firearm-related injury and death in the United States: a call to action from 8 health professional organizations and the American Bar Association. Ann Intern Med. 2015;162(7):513-516. doi:10.7326/M15-0337.
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  11. Jones N, Nguyen J, Strand NK, Reeves K. What should be the scope of physicians' roles in responding to gun violence? AMA J Ethics. 2018;20(1):84-90. doi:10.1001/journalofethics.2018.20.1.pfor2-1801.
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  13. Firearm Safety and Injury Prevention Position Paper [position statement]. Dallas, TX: American College of Emergency Physicians; April 2013.
  14. AMA recommends new, common-sense policies to prevent gun violence [press release]. Chicago, IL: American Medical Association; June 12, 2018.
  15. APHA Gun Violence Prevention Policy Statements [position statement]. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association; 2019.
  16. Preventing Firearm Misuse, Injury, and Death Position Statement [position paper]. Arlington, VA:Association of State and Territorial Health Officials; September 2015;
  17. Butkus R, Doherty R, Bornstein SS, Health and Public Policy Committee of the American College of Physicians. Reducing firearm injuries and deaths in the United States: A position paper from the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2018;169(10):704-707.doi:10.7326/M18-1530.
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  24. Find Safety Devices Compatible with Your Firearm. State of California Department of Justice Web site.
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  37. Gun Violence Awareness Day [motion]. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors; May 28, 2019.

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Author Information:

Michael Jan, MD, PhD, MPH
Preventive Medicine Fellow
University of California, Los Angeles

Isabelle Sternfeld, MSPH
Andrea Welsing, MPH
Injury and Violence Prevention Program

Rashmi Shetgiri, MD, MSHS, MSCS
Office of Health Assessment and Epidemiology

County of Los Angeles
Department of Public Health

Rx for Prevention, 2019

Published: July 11, 2019