Date March 1, 2020
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This story is from Impact: Research at Brown, Brown’s magazine devoted to the University’s research.

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‘This is our lane’: Emergency physician advocates for research-driven approach to curb gun violence

Associate Professor Megan Ranney leads national efforts to conduct gun safety research while pushing to increase federal funding.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Just two weeks after the shooting deaths of 17 students and staff at a Parkland, Fla., high school in 2018, Megan Ranney’s long-simmering frustration boiled over.

As an associate professor at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School who had founded the school’s Emergency Digital Health Innovation Program, and an emergency physician at Rhode Island Hospital, Ranney had reached an intense moment of exasperation in her efforts to find research-based solutions to the country’s epidemic of gun violence.

An active social media user, Ranney tried a new approach, tweeting out the harrowing accounts of gun violence across the nation that she’d gathered, under the label #docs4gunsense. Her messages got enormous immediate notice, and within days there were hundreds of doctors posting stories of loss and anger under the hashtag she coined.

Less than nine months later, Ranney found herself in the lead of another high-wattage situation played out in social media. In response to a paper on firearm injuries and deals published by the American College of Physicians, the National Rifle Association sent out a tweet telling “self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.” Ranney said she was stunned, yet quickly moved to the forefront of those organizing a rebuttal campaign as #ThisIsOurLane. Fueled further by another mass shooting just a few hours later in Thousand Oaks, Calif., the physicians’ hashtag flooded Twitter with tens of thousands of messages.

For Ranney, who also earned an MPH degree from Brown, her interest in gun safety issues and research grew from her emergency department experiences. Over and over, she saw how firearms cases were unusual, particularly how so many were fatal. She was shocked at how many involved suicides, where the presence of an unmonitored gun in a house was connected to a spontaneous act that caused death. She calls the large number of suicide deaths in the United States by guns a “silent epidemic.” 

Early in her career, Ranney, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, found herself drawn to firearm safety research. She was discouraged from going into the field and quickly found one of the main reasons: an act of Congress in 1996 — a still-in-place rider known as the Dickey Amendment — had almost completely choked off all federal funds for gun safety research. 

This is the health crisis of our time.

Megan Ranney Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Health Services, Policy and Practice

Over the last few years, Ranney has led national efforts to conduct gun safety research with money that is available while simultaneously pushing to increase federal and state funding to a much higher level. Based on injury statistics, she estimates that research funds on gun violence should be 50 times greater in order to be responsive. 

“This is the health crisis of our time,” she said about gun safety issues. More research would identify and test more potential solutions; it would also address the lack of data, such as on firearm ownership, that makes current violence harder to stop, she said.

Ranney is also one of the founders and chief research officer for the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine (AFFIRM), a nonprofit group of health care providers and researchers looking to find solutions to firearm violence.

“We have not applied the public health approach to guns,” Ranney said, comparing gun deaths to other causes of deaths, such as car crashes and AIDS. In both of those cases she said, research led to significant innovations and ultimately lowered the number of deaths. For guns, the state of science has not advanced much since 1996, she said.

Responding to the concerns of many gun owners, Ranney said she doesn’t think research-based solutions are about confiscation of guns. While recognizing that most guns are used safely, she said other changes, such as more accurate identification of people at risk of firearm injury, improved education about safer storage, and community-based prevention programs, could save lives. 

In 2018, when the National Institutes of Health awarded a $5 million grant to the University of Michigan for a new Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens Consortium (FACTS), it was the largest grant from the agency for firearm injury reduction in 20 years. Brown is one of 12 universities and health systems across the country included, with Ranney in charge of Brown’s part of the study. 

Also in 2018, Ranney served as the co-chair of a 43-member gun safety working group for Rhode Island, appointed by Gov. Gina Raimondo and delivering to her more than 30 recommendations for reforms.

She has published many papers on gun violence and other violent injuries, and frequently speaks on the subject. 

Despite setbacks, Ranney said, “I see hope. We are close to a tipping point within this nation of recognizing that, when we address gun violence as a health epidemic, we have the potential to fix it, just like we made progress with HIV/AIDS and car crashes.”

Last August was another inflection point for gun issues after the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings. Ranney was again one of the most prominent activists and researchers, writing articles and appearing on many radio and television programs.

“I’m following a passion and doing something that needs to be done,” she said.