Many of us have heard the grim stats: the United States has the highest rate of firearm deaths in the developed world. Right now, there are more guns than people in the country and regular mass shootings continue to be a uniquely American phenomenon.In this guide
The statistics are bad and social workers know firsthand based on their interactions with victims of gun violence, the lifelong repercussions of a firearm injury or losing someone to gun violence.
With that in mind, what role can social work students and social workers play in reducing the epidemic of gun violence in the United States?
The answer is there are many things social workers can do to make a difference, including being aware of the risks for their clients and influencing policy.
To make a difference, it is important that social workers are well informed about different types of gun violence and gun safety issues in the US, which include accidental shootings, gun suicides, and gun homicides.
Gun violence by the numbers
Each form of gun violence affects certain groups more than others and preventive approaches differ. In total, guns were the tool of violence used in over 45,000 homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings in 2021.
Of all firearm deaths in the US, preventable accidental shootings accounted for only about one percent of deaths (around 500 per year) in recent years, while accidents accounted for 37 percent of all nonfatal firearm injuries.
Social workers can play a central role in helping to prevent accidental shootings which often involve children and adolescents.
According to the American Psychological Association, social workers can address safe storage of firearms with individual clients, parents, and families.
This conversation can prevent a child or teen from accessing an unsecured firearm in the home and accidentally injuring or killing themselves or another person.
Suicide by gun accounts for the largest percentage of firearm deaths in the nation. In 2020, according the National Safety Council, 50 percent of all firearm deaths were due to suicide (over 24,000 deaths).
Americans are eight times more likely to die by firearm suicide than people in other high-income countries.
Suicide by gun, according to Harvard’s School of Public Health, is highly lethal leaving no opportunity, in nine out of ten attempts, for regret or mental health treatment, compared to other means of attempting suicide such as overdosing on pills.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suicide by gun is more common among white males and Native American males (by 2020 Native American males had a slightly higher firearm suicide rate than white males).
Having a gun in the home triples the risk of death by suicide, according to research from Everytown for Gun Safety.
Having a conversation with a child or teen’s parents about safe gun storage, when a child has a mental health issue and is at higher risk of suicide, is very important.
It also is appropriate to speak to a family about safe gun storage if they live with an adult client who is at higher risk of self-harm. Of course, speaking directly to an adult client at risk of self-harm about whether they have firearms in the home is important as well.
Harvard’s Means Matter Initiative trains mental health professionals in lethal means counseling to reduce at risk clients’ access to firearms.
Social workers may also take steps in many states to report to law enforcement the presence of firearms in the home of a client whom they deem dangerous to themselves or others.
Some mental health professionals are hesitant to discuss firearms with clients, or resist mandating such inquiries, due to concerns that people will hesitate to seek mental health treatment because they fear their guns being taken away. However, according to research conducted by Pew, red flag laws in states that have them can be effective in preventing firearm related suicides, homicides, and injury.
Social workers must be informed about red flag laws in their state and their rights and means to report high risk clients. Social workers also play an important role in educating families about red flag laws and how they can go about protecting loved ones at risk of suicide and protect the public from family members who may be in crisis.
Social workers can also advocate for strengthening existing red flag laws or for enacting them.
Social workers can also have a powerful voice in preventing firearm homicides and injury.
Social workers can be active at the micro level (therapeutic settings), at the community (mezzo level), and advocate for stricter gun laws at the macro level (learn more about the levels of social work).
Gun violence and social work
Social workers must be well informed about firearms and non-lethal assaults and homicide. In the United States alone, there were more than 20,000 gun homicides in 2021, according to Gun Violence Archive. The number of gun homicides has been steadily increasing since 2019.
According to the BBC, firearms are used in most homicides in the US (79 percent) compared to 37 percent of homicides in Canada and 4 percent in the UK.
While assault style weapons draw a lot of attention in the media for their role in mass shootings, according to Pew research, handguns accounted for 59 percent of US gun murders in 2020.
According to the CDC, “In 2020, counties with the highest poverty level had firearm homicide rates 4.5 times as high and firearm suicide rates.”
Therefore, any work mental health professionals and social workers do to address poverty in their communities can have a corresponding impact on lowering rates of gun violence. The CDC recommends, enacting social policies such as child tax credits, publicly funded childcare, and access to mental health services can reduce gun violence.
Race also plays a factor in gun violence victim disparities. In the US gun homicides are much more prevalent in African American communities.
The homicide rate for African Americans increased from 19 per 100,000 people in 2019 to 27 per 100,00 in 2020. This compares to a 2020 gun homicide rate of 2 per 100,000 for white Americans and 5 per 100,000 for Hispanics/Latinos.
Young people also are more impacted by gun homicides, injury, and mass shootings. In fact, according to an article in Science News, in 2017 firearm injuries became the leading cause of death for children and teens.
Social workers as violence interrupters
At the micro level social workers can counsel clients with the highest risk of engaging in gun violence by discussing violence prevention, dispute resolution, and safety.
Social workers are especially adept at building the capacity of individuals to be peaceful, positive contributors to their communities, and therefore can play a powerful role at the community level in preventing gun violence as well. They can be advocates, community organizers, or community health workers.
Social workers can also get involved in violence disruption organizations that send activists and community members into communities to prevent gun violence before it occurs.
Statistics and data can greatly aid these efforts by predicting gun violence based on social media activity, neighborhood crime, gang activity, and other factors so that interventions are highly targeted.
Violence interrupters go into the community to interact with those who are at high risk of committing a revenge killing or a homicide based on a drug or other disputes and attempt to diffuse a situation before violence occurs.
Social work policy and gun violence
Social workers also are vitally needed to be active at the macro level to strengthen state and federal gun laws. By now, according the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, there is enough data to show a pattern of lax gun the direct correlation with high rates of gun homicides and suicides.
The struggle for increased gun safety and gun regulations extends decades with some victories and many more defeats. For example, the expiration of the federal ban on assault weapons made these weapons of war readily available to mass shooters across the U.S.
Most mass shooters obtain their assault weapons legally. Several states including New York and California have sought to regulate high-capacity magazines and impose strict concealed carry laws only to have these laws struck down by the Supreme Court.
Furthermore, loopholes in federal background checks allow gun buyers to elude these safeguards at gun shows and some online purchases.
Social workers can educate themselves about state and federal gun laws and become active in advocating for common sense laws that do not intrude on Americans’ basic right to bear arms.
They can empower gun violence victims to advocate for stricter laws and to share their stories as testimony to the life changing impacts easy access to guns can have. They can be activists with organizations, or on their own time, to ensure elected officials are listening to the majority of Americans who want stricter gun laws.
Social workers are trained in social justice and human rights and therefore it is their responsibility to fight for changes in society and laws that protect people, health, safety, liberty, and well-being.
The fight for greater gun safety and gun control has been a long and difficult road that will continue into the foreseeable future.
Social workers can be leaders in helping to solve one of the most heart wrenching and intractable problems of our modern era. There are abundant opportunities in the field of gun violence prevention for social workers whether they work full time, or as volunteers, to make a difference.
The following is a list of just some of the organizations fighting to end the epidemic of gun violence in the United States: Everytown for Gun Safety.
- The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV is an umbrella organization of gun violence prevention groups located across the country).
- March for Our Lives
- Moms Demand Action
- Brady United
- CeaseFire PA
- Sandy Hook Promise
- Giffords Law Center
- Newtown Action Alliance
- Ceasefire Oregon
- Colorado Ceasefire
- Doctors 4 Gun Safety
- New Yorkers Against Gun Violence