Leveraging Social Work to Address Gun Violence: A Call to Action

The BulletPoints Project April 11, 2022

 

Mickey Sperlich, PhD, MSW, MA, CPM

Assistant Professor
University at Buffalo School of Social Work

 

 

Patricia Logan-Greene, PhD 

Associate Professor
University at Buffalo School of Social Work

 

Social workers practice in a wide variety of contexts – from schools to hospitals, social service provision to prisons, from mandated programming to voluntary mental health care, and more. Thus, social workers can be found interfacing with large portions of the population of the United States.

This means social workers are in contact with millions of individuals who are at high risk of injury from firearms through victimization, accidents, and suicide attempts.

Despite this, social workers get minimal training on identifying risks of gun injury that may be present within their client populations, let alone what to do about them.

Compared to other disciplines, there is remarkably little research done on firearm injury risks within social work. One recent systematic review of all 200 journals in the discipline located only 40 articles discussing interpersonal gun violence in a 25-year period.1 Similarly, in the only published study describing how often practicing social workers talked to their clients about firearms, only 34% reported regularly assessing for firearm access, and only 15.4% regularly counseled their clients about firearm safety.2

On one hand, this is a discouraging picture. On the other, this presents an opportunity for the discipline of social work to address the epidemic of firearm violence within the US, with potentially enormous benefits.

In order to leverage social work to address firearm violence, we need a multi-pronged approach.

First, more students need to have a basic understanding of the nature of and risks for firearm injury during their BSW or MSW coursework. They should also understand that the popular discourse frequently misleads on the association between mental illness and firearm injury – that those with a mental illness are far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence, with the exception of suicide.

Next, social workers should receive training on both assessing for and responding to risks of firearm violence in their area of practice. All social workers need to learn the role of firearms in suicide, as well as how to counsel individuals about access to firearms if they or their family members are at increased risk of suicide or suicide ideation. Social workers should also receive training on assessing for firearm access for those at risk of homicide perpetration or victimization. They should also have the knowledge and skills to talk about safe storage with all their clients, especially for clients with children. To the best of our knowledge, there are few training opportunities either in schools or in the form of continuing education for social work practitioners to learn about firearms, safe storage options, and practice skills related to discussing these topics with clients.

Finally, we need far more research on social work practice and firearm violence. While there are some recent publications from the National Association of Social Work about gun violence,3,4 and growing clinical guidance for other types of practitioners, especially medical doctors, we need to determine whether the advice needs to be adjusted for different client populations with whom social workers may interface. Moreover, we need more research on macro approaches to reduce firearm violence across the country. What should concerned social workers do in their communities that can reduce injury and death? We have some evidence to address these problems, but we need to know far more than we do.

Social workers have the potential to make a major dent in our country’s firearm violence. We’re already connected to many of the highest-risk populations, and our training prepares us to address the most sensitive and controversial issues in our clients’ lives. Many of us are skilled advocates for policies at the local, state, and federal levels to address complex social problems, like firearm violence. Ultimately, social workers are uniquely well-positioned to play a bigger role in preventing firearm injury and death. All we have to do is get to work.

To learn more about this topic, register for the BulletPoints webinar episode on “The Role of Social Workers in Firearm Injury Prevention” with Drs. Mickey Sperlich and Patricia Logan-Greene.

 

Clinical tools for preventing firearm injury

Click to view references

  1. Aspholm, R. R., St Vil, C., & Carter, K. (2019). Interpersonal gun violence research in the social work literature. Health & Social Work.
  2. Slovak, K., Brewer, T. W., & Carlson, K. (2008). Client firearm assessment and safety counseling: the role of social workers. Social Work.
  3. Arp, J., Gonzales, R., Herstand, M., et al. Social justice brief: gun violence in the American culture. National Association of Social Workers.
  4. Lanyi, B., Gonzales, R., & Wilson, M. Social justice brief: tools for social workers to prevent gun violence. National Association of Social Workers.
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