Gun violence – a public health crisis

Last month in Bitter Lake, a neighborhood in my district, a young man was shot in the head and died following an altercation. He was only 32 years old. For many of us, his death by gun is just another headline in The Seattle Times, that since has been joined by reports of a recent flurry of shootings. Frankly, and disturbingly, it seems like a day does not go by where we don’t read headlines or see news reports about people losing their lives to these seemingly senseless acts of gun violence.

However, accepting “senseless” as an explanation doesn’t bring us closer to solutions, which is why King County Public Health is leading the way on collecting and analyzing the data around firearm violence resulting in deaths, both through suicide and homicide.

Beyond the headlines and the tragic personal stories, what do the numbers really say? That’s what the focus of their research is and, as your elected representative, I’m here to share some of the preliminary findings with you. This research springs from the Gun Safety Action Plan, which Councilmember McDermott and I championed in response to the rising prevalence of firearms in our community. The plan includes legislation requiring warning signs at entrances and cash registers of stores selling firearms, requiring secure storage for firearms, authorizing a youth-led report on reducing gun violence, requiring the Sheriff’s Office to destroy forfeited weapons, and forming a task force to identify other public health prevention strategies.

Despite how people in King County may perceive trends in firearm deaths, firearm suicide rates remained steady from 2000 to 2016. Firearm homicide rates were steady from 2000 to 2007, appeared to decrease slightly from 2007 to 2010, and by 2016 had increased to baseline 2000 rates.

There actually are more firearm suicides than homicides. In King County, there were almost three times as many suicides by firearm as homicides by firearm—about 106 suicides and 37 homicides per year on average.

There are age patterns in King County’s firearm deaths. Young adults ages 18-24 were most likely to die by firearm homicide, whereas adults ages 65+ were most likely to die by firearm suicide.

We also can see patterns in terms of the sex-at-birth of those who die by firearms. Males were more likely than females to die by firearm homicide and firearm suicide. The only gender information that King County had to work with has been sex-at-birth and not gender identity, meaning that we cannot characterize how many of these deaths constituted non-binary or trans community members.

Location matters. While firearm suicides were similar across all income levels, firearm homicide rates were highest in high-poverty neighborhoods. Residents of South King County had the highest rates of firearm homicide and firearm suicide.

When we can see the trends and the systemic patterns in firearm deaths, it helps County leadership build a broader and more structural response. As Chair of the King County Board of Health, I am committed to ensuring that we address gun violence with a public health lens, looking at ways to address the root causes of gun violence in addition to minimizing firearm-related deaths in our County.

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