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Coalition of grandmothers joins with UW researchers to keep guns out of the wrong hands

Students at Ballard High School participate in a walkout to address school safety and gun violence on March 14, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

At the University of Washington, research is underway into how to prevent domestic violence and related gun violence from harming a generation of children.

That research is being funded by a group called Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, of which Margaret Heldring is the founder.

“I think, like many Americans, I do have a personal experience with someone who took his own life with a gun,” Heldring told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross, describing the founding of the organization. “But what really catalyzed the founding of grandmothers was the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. And a few days after that terrible event, four friends, I being one, were having dinner together, talking about it, and we suddenly realized that each of us at that time was the grandmother of a six-year-old.”

“We had a profound and very painful resonance with that event, thinking it could have been our grandchildren. But even if it wasn’t ours, it was somebody’s grandchild, and we must do something,” she added.

After putting the organization together and starting to raise money, they found Dr. Alice Ellyson, who works in the department of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

“I, along with colleagues at the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, Dr. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, and the King County Regional Domestic Violence Firearms Unit, are studying those cases where firearms are removed from homes as part of a domestic violence protection order,” Ellyson explained.

“So in 2014, Washington state enacted a law that essentially strengthened federal standards prohibiting individuals from possessing firearms when they are named as a respondent in a DVPO. And there’s a unit, the King County Domestic Violence Protection Order unit, that essentially investigates and determines whether there are firearms in the home, ” she continued. “Firearms in the home with domestic violence is a significant risk factor for both children and petitioners who are experiencing that violence.”

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So why focus on just gun violence?

“Domestic violence actually comes with all sorts of forms of violence,” Ellyson said. “There are often other weapons that are used, but the presence of a firearm, because of how fatal firearms are, just exponentially increases the risk for people involved. If you talk to advocates of those who work with petitioners who are experiencing domestic violence, historically the advice was, ‘well, why don’t you just leave?’ But a lot of people are in families, they don’t want to leave. It’s difficult to leave. They don’t have the economic means to leave.”

“But if you can focus on the highest risk weapon, which is a firearm, then you can eliminate a lot of the risk without asking people to uproot or completely change their lives,” she added.

The criticism to focusing on guns could be that people feel this is an attempt to undermine the Second Amendment. However, Ellyson says making it easier to seize guns is not the goal of the research.

“Actually, there are a lot of people who own firearms, use firearms in shooting sports or recreational activity or who own it for protection, who are largely in support of these programs,” she said. “That is because before you would fall under this purview, there are safety risks and other things that have happened.”

“These are the kinds of provisions, I think, that across the board most Americans actually agree with,” she added.

These cases, Ellyson said, are all being reviewed by a judge and there has to be a burden of proof that the action to remove a firearm should be taken.

The study, as she explains, is first characterizing how often firearm threats occur in domestic violence protection orders, and how often those firearm threats are directed at children.

“The second thing we’ll be studying is whether firearm removal enforcement does reduce violence against children involving firearms,” she said. “And because of Grandmothers against Gun Violence goals in understanding the harms that fire and violence can have on children specifically, this grant will be exploring that.”

Heldring clarified that the mission of Grandmothers Against Gun Violence is not gun control.

“Our mission is to promote a culture of gun responsibility and gun safety, and to decrease the epidemic of violence associated with guns in this country,” she said. “It is not to remove guns or to control gun owners or to take guns away. We understand that guns exist for many reasons, but what is of deep concern to us is when they get in the hands of people who should not have a gun in their hands.”

As Dave Ross asked, if it turns out for some reason that the domestic violence protection orders do not make a substantial difference in the number of deaths, what’s plan B?

“Honestly, that’s a really important question,” Ellyson replied. “So as researchers, we don’t go out looking for a certain answer. We really, especially in policy, want to understand: A. does something reduce things that we all care about in society, like violence? Yes or no. And then: B. the next step depends on what we find. So we want to invest money in places where we can influence the reduction of violence. If that’s not through this program, that’s also a really informative answer.”

“No matter what the results of the studies show, I think it will be informative to our community to understanding how we can work together to reduce intimate partner violence,” she added.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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