CDC funds 10 projects — including 3 with VCU connections — that seek to prevent gun violence

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To find ways to address gun violence, the CDC recently awarded 10 grants that seek to investigate how to prevent firearm-related violence and injuries. Three of the grants have connections to VCU. (Getty Images)

Gun violence continues to be among the five leading causes of death for people under age 64, with 109 people dying each day from firearm-related injuries in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To find ways to address gun violence, the CDC recently awarded 10 three-year grants that seek to investigate how to prevent firearm-related violence and injuries. One of these was awarded to a Virginia Commonwealth University researcher, another involves VCU collaborators and is being led by a former VCU doctoral student, and a third was awarded to a former post-doctoral researcher at VCU.

Nicholas Thomson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery in the School of Medicine and the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, received one of the CDC grants. Thomson is the director of research at VCU’s Injury and Violence Prevention Program, and was awarded a $1.95 million grant for his study, “Preventing Retaliatory Gun Violence in Violently Injured Adults: A RCT of a Hospital-Based Intervention.”

“The overarching goal of the research is to conduct a randomized control trial to evaluate a hospital- and community-based violence intervention, [called] Bridging the Gap, for reducing retaliatory firearm-related violence, and firearm-related re-injury and mortality,” Thomson said.

The study, he said, also aims to understand how Bridging the Gap is effective for reducing gun violence and mortality “by testing which mediating psychosocial risk-factors are malleable — or not — to the intervention.”

“This knowledge will help us improve the intervention to better serve our patients,” Thomson said. “Importantly, we will conduct a cost-benefit analysis to test if Bridging the Gap is a cost-effective approach to reducing firearm-related violence, re-injury and death.”

After being discharged from the hospital, violently injured adults are at high risk of being violently re-injured or killed, Thomson said. Research also shows that violently injured patients are at a much greater risk for retaliatory violence once discharged. The hospital offers a unique window of opportunity to stop the cycle of gun violence by engaging high-risk individuals into wraparound intervention services before they leave the hospital. As such, hospital-based violence intervention programs, such as Bridging the Gap, have become increasingly popular, Thomson said.

“This study is significant because it will help determine what works for firearm-violence prevention for high-risk individuals” he said. “It will also provide valuable information to potential stakeholders on the economic efficiency of integrating Bridging the Gap in their hospital. If successful, [the program] could become a nationwide model to effectively combat retaliatory gun violence for high-risk populations, resulting in fewer people being killed and becoming victims of violence.”

Working with Thomson on the project is a team of researchers across both VCU campuses, including Michel B. Aboutanos, M.D., medical director of the VCU Trauma Center and professor and chair of the Division of Acute Care Surgical Services and director of the Injury and Violence Prevention Program; Albert Farrell, Ph.D., a psychology professor and director of the VCU Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development; Terri Sullivan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology; Robert A. Perera, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics; and Sarin Adhikari, Ph.D., a research economist at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

Thomson is also a co-investigator on a second CDC grant being led by Erin Austin at the Virginia Division of Surveillance and Investigation at the Virginia Department of Health. That project seeks to enhance the health department’s gun violence surveillance and prevention by increasing the timeliness of aggregate reporting of emergency department visits for nonfatal firearm injuries, and also by disseminating surveillance findings to key stakeholders statewide working to prevent and respond to firearm injuries and the public.

Thomson is also a faculty fellow in the Clark-Hill Institute’s mentoring program, under the mentorship of Sullivan and Farrell. The institute is funded by the CDC as one of only five Academic Centers of Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention.

Since the CDC began funding the Clark-Hill Institute in 2000, it has provided research training for faculty, postdocs, graduate students and undergraduate students, Farrell said.

“I have been very pleased to see many of our trainees go on to have successful research careers. This was well reflected in the CDC’s new initiative to fund research on reducing firearm-related violence,” he said. “Of the 10 projects, two are led by [primary investigators] that received training from faculty within the Clark-Hill Institute, and a third is led by a PI that is currently a faculty fellow participating in the institute’s mentoring program supported by funds received from the VCU vice president for research and innovation.”

One of these CDC-funded studies is led by Krista Mehari, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Alabama who received her doctorate from VCU’s clinical psychology program in 2015. While at VCU, Mehari was funded by the Clark-Hill Institute’s CDC Center grant and collaborated with the institute’s faculty on various projects focused on youth violence prevention.

Mehari was awarded $1.9 million for her study, “Participatory Action Research to Inform a Social-Ecological Model of Gun-Related Attitudes, Behaviors, and Practices,” which will investigate risky gun-related behaviors and the acceptability of specific approaches to prevention for populations at greatest risk for homicide and suicide.

“This proposal is highly innovative and potentially paradigm-shifting,” said Farrell, who was Mehari’s adviser at VCU and is a co-investigator on the project. “The proposed work intends to break down silos of research as it relates to populations of great interest and risk, particularly young Black men with the urban gun violence focus and older white men with the suicide focus and types of firearm injury.”

A third CDC grant was awarded to Anna Yaros, Ph.D., a research clinical psychologist at Research Triangle Institute who previously was a postdoctoral fellow at the Clark-Hill Institute. Yaros was awarded $1.1 million to lead a study, “An Examination of Firearm Violence Crises Using Crisis Text Line Data: Filling a Critical Gap,” focused on analyzing crisis text line data related to multiple types of firearm violence to help inform firearm violence prevention activities.

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