Tailored approach makes inroads in rural firearms safekeeping

Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan

A new study shows early promise for an approach that seeks to reduce the risk of firearm injury and death in rural areas, while respecting rural culture and firearm ownership.

The effort tailors messages about safe firearm storage and teen firearm suicide to a rural audience, and shares specific tips for improving safety.

Early data presented at a national conference show that in 45 rural Michigan families with both children and firearms in their home, the vast majority of parents reported strong engagement with the prevention materials, finding the content useful and reflective of their rural community values.

Three weeks after completing the intervention, 86% of the parents said they completed a firearm home safety checklist suggested by the program, and 88% talked about firearm safety with another adult in their home.

Nearly two-thirds also went on to discuss firearm safety with children who live with them, and 40% reported that they made a change to how they store firearms in their home.

The findings, from the pilot study of the Store Safely project, were presented on December 1 at the 2022 National Research Conference on Firearm Injury Prevention by Cynthia Ewell Foster, Ph.D., who leads the University of Michigan-based team behind the project. The presentation won one of the conference’s top awards.

“We are excited by these findings, and by the variety of actions that these families took including changing to unloaded and locked storage and moving hunting rifles to another location less accessible to children,” says Ewell Foster, a clinical psychologist in the Michigan Medicine Department of Psychiatry and member of the U-M Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention. “While we have much more work to do to assess the impact of the tools we’ve developed, our findings show the value of partnering with the community in order to develop a culturally tailored safety message.”

The Store Safely website includes a video featuring trusted community messengers, an infographic of local data, a decision aid to help families consider different storage options, and downloadable resources, including a home safety checklist.

The Store Safely project grew out of a partnership with the Marquette County Health Department, Marquette County Suicide Prevention Alliance and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. It involved an extensive community advisory board representing local business owners; law enforcement officials; veteran navigators; medical, behavioral, and public health professionals; and K-12 school personnel.

Rural America has the highest per capita death toll from firearms, higher than suburban and urban areas, and the main reason for this difference is firearm suicides.

Putting time and distance between individuals who are at risk for suicide and highly lethal means like firearms is a critical part of a comprehensive suicide prevention strategy, Ewell Foster said.

Store Safely focuses its messaging on the importance of preventing all firearm injury as well as teen firearm-related suicide e by storing firearms in ways that reduce the chances that a teen who is upset, angry, depressed, or experiencing other kinds of risk factors will be able to access a loaded firearm.

The program’s materials emphasize the range of options that rural families have for reducing risk within the context of their lifestyle,which includes firearm ownership for both hunting and protection. .

Ewell Foster and her colleagues plan to increase the availability of the Store Safely intervention while continuing to evaluate its impact in other rural communities both within and beyond Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

In addition to Ewell Foster, the study’s authors are Christina Magness LMSW, Tayla Smith M.P.H., and Cheryl King Ph.D. of the U-M Department of Psychiatry, Sarah Derwin of the Marquette County Health Department, and Eskira Kahsay, M.P.H., of the U-M School of Public Health.

The Store Safely project is funded by the Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens Consortium based at U-M. FACTS is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD087149).

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