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California is poised to become the first state to establish a gun violence prevention training program for healthcare professionals. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom has approved $3.85 million in funding for UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP) to develop a program to educate practicing physicians, mental health care professionals, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, health professions students and other specialists on best practices to reduce firearm-related injury and death.

The state and Assembly Bill 521, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on Oct. 11, designates the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center, which is hosted by VPRP, to expand its research and give healthcare professionals the clinical tools they need to assess patients for risk, provide counseling and intervene when necessary. The bill was authored by Assemblymember Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto), and the Budget Act of 2019 includes $3.85 million for the training.

“This program will be the only one of its kind in the country,” said Garen Wintemute, an emergency physician and director of the UC Center and VPRP. “California health professionals are committed to making firearm violence prevention part of their practices, and we are very excited by the opportunity to equip them with the knowledge and skills they need.”

Amy Barnhorst, MD, a UC Davis psychiatrist who has dedicated much of her career to the issue of gun violence, suicide and public mental health, will direct the training. She is vice chair for community mental health and an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“Medical and mental health providers are uniquely positioned to respond to and prevent firearm-related harm,” Dr. Barnhorst said. “Many have asked for more information on when and how to discuss firearms with patients and what to do when patients have access to guns and are at high risk for harming themselves or others.”

The new initiative builds on VPRP’s What You Can Do program. Established in 2017 after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, the program offers specific strategies healthcare providers can use in their clinics to reduce firearm injury and death. The goal is to help providers get comfortable identifying risk, talk about firearm safety and take action when the risk is imminent.

But experts nationwide believe much more can be done.

In 2017, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 3,184 gun-related deaths in California, including 1,610 suicides and 1,435 homicides. Mass shootings also are changing the character of public life nationwide. By one report, since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there have been at least 2,260 mass shootings, with at least 2,559 killed and 9,426 wounded. These include the recent shootings in California at Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks and at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

AB 521 supports comprehensive training for a wide range of California providers, including practicing physicians, mental health care professionals, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, health professions students and other specialists.

The center will guide providers in working with at-risk patients, from offering safer storage practices to initiating gun violence restraining orders as well as interventions for individuals with mental health issues. It also will continue to conduct rigorous research to further identify specific gaps in knowledge and structural barriers that prevent counseling and other interventions that can reduce the threat of gun violence.

AB 521 co-authors include Assemblymembers Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters), David Chiu (D-San Francisco), Jesse Gabriel (D-San Fernando Valley), Todd Gloria (D-San Diego), Marc Levine (D-Marin County) and Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), and Senators Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge) and Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco).

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