Researchers partner with community to improve firearm safety, reduce injuries

The University of Michigan partners with residents from Upper Peninsula county to create a new educational program around firearm safety.

11:10 AM

Author | Alex Piazza

"Carry responsibly."

It is a routine expression that Avery Smith echoes to his neighbors across northern Michigan.

Smith is a concealed pistol safety and defense instructor in Marquette County, and over the past nine years, he has taught more than 650 residents across the Upper Peninsula about responsible firearm ownership.

"Even though it's a defensive tool, it's a very dangerous tool that has to be taken care of," said Smith, an avid outdoorsman who is certified by the National Rifle Association.

"You've got to keep your firearms in a place where unauthorized people can't get access to them because you don't want to be responsible for an accidental shooting somewhere. You don't want to be the one who has that guilty conscience, that I did not do everything I could to keep that firearm in a safe location, and now it's been used in a way that somebody got hurt."

In an effort to reduce injuries and deaths among children and adolescents in rural communities, Smith is collaborating with researchers at the University of Michigan to develop and implement a new firearm safety education program – one of many community engagement activities tied to the U-M Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention. The institute launched last year as part of a $10 million university commitment to generate new knowledge and advance innovative solutions to reduce firearm injuries and deaths, while respecting the rights of law-abiding citizens to legally own firearms.

The Store Safely program, led by U-M clinical psychologist Cynthia Ewell Foster, brings together various groups from across Marquette County – from public health practitioners, local business owners and law enforcement officials to suicide prevention specialists, veteran navigators and K-12 personnel – so they can tailor firearm safety strategies for families living in rural communities.

U-M research shows that children and teens from rural communities are at elevated risk for unintentional injury and suicide caused by firearms. And because firearm ownership is prominent across some northern Michigan communities for a variety of reasons ranging from hunting to protection, Ewell Foster began piloting the Store Safely program three years ago in Marquette County. The Upper Peninsula county, home to 66,000 residents, reported 56 suicide-related deaths – 31 of which were caused by firearms – from 2017 to 2020.

"As academics, we have to be really humble about our own ideas and about the interventions that we design in our 'ivory towers'," said Ewell Foster, associate professor of psychiatry at the Medical School and a faculty affiliate with the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention.

"If you're trying to make a difference in a community, you have to meet people where they are with messages and messengers that they trust and value. That's why we took the time to understand why families choose to own firearms … and then we worked with them in a respectful, problem-focused way about how to reduce the possibility for harm, while also just really honoring and valuing their reasons for ownership."

Ewell Foster partnered with northern Michigan health educator Sarah Derwin, who was born and raised in Marquette County, to organize a series of focus groups and interviews with area residents around the topic of firearm safety. Community members take great pride in being responsible firearm owners, Derwin said, and most parents who participated in the focus groups and interviews engage their children in hunter's safety courses. But only 12 percent of individuals cited safe storage as a primary component of firearm safety.

Those particular findings, along with feedback from interviews with multiple community members, inspired Ewell Foster and Derwin to develop a prevention strategy tailored for rural communities that focuses on how to safely store firearms. Store Safely is a four-step online program – funded by the Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens Consortium based at U-M – that firearm owners can complete at their own pace, with an overall goal to prevent firearm injuries and death.

Ewell Foster and her team eventually plan to disseminate the Store Safely intervention, which includes safety videos, infographics, decision aids and family firearm storage action plans developed by and for people living in rural communities.

"Just anecdotally, from living and working in this area for so long, I know there's lots of firearms out there … but we can all agree that we want to create environments that keep our children safe," said Derwin, the daughter of an iron ore miner who has worked at the Marquette County Health Department for 13 years.

"It doesn't really have to be a controversial issue – this is a safety issue. This is a rural community with a lot of firearm owners. It's also my community, and the community that I live in and I love. It will be really exciting to see what comes of this program."

This article was originally posted by U-M Research.

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