New data show gun-related injuries on the rise in Virginia emergency rooms

Dept of Health finds ER visits rose by 72% between 2018 and 2021

By: - June 30, 2022 12:33 pm

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Emergency room visits for gun-related injuries in Virginia increased by 72 percent between 2018 and 2021, and Black patients — particularly young Black men — are disproportionately impacted by gun violence, according to new data released Thursday by the Virginia Department of Health.

The statistics were included on the agency’s firearm injury surveillance dashboard, launched as state and local policymakers grapple with rising numbers of gun-related offenses.

Virginia’s latest crime statistics showed a 6.4 percent rise in homicides between 2020 and 2021 — the vast majority of which involved a firearm. And a rash of high-profile shootings over the last few months have spurred several Virginia localities to organize gun buyback events, though studies show the initiatives do little to quell violent crime.

“The misuse and mishandling of firearms constitute a significant cause of injury in Virginia,” Dr. Colin Greene, the state’s health commissioner, said in a Thursday statement. The release described the data as an example of “syndromic surveillance,” a strategy that aims to uncover emerging health issues and monitor communities in real time.

While the agency eventually hopes to expand the dashboard to include firearm-related inpatient admissions and deaths, data from local emergency rooms is a useful proxy for the toll of gun violence in Virginia communities. Firearm-related visits have been rising steadily since 2018, with 1,112 reported so far this year, according to the dashboard.

Richmond leads the state in the number of firearm injuries per 10,000 emergency department visits, with a rate of 16.5, according to the last six years of data. The city is closely followed by the Crater Health District, an area that includes Petersburg, and the city of Norfolk.

Young adults aged 18 to 24 have some of the highest rates of gun-related injuries, accounting for nearly a third of visits last year, the data shows. And the toll of gun violence is greatest for Black Virginians, whose rate of emergency room visits is nearly triple that of White patients.

How to address the issue has been a contentious debate among state legislators. Under Democratic control, the Virginia General Assembly passed several new measures aimed at reducing gun violence, including a red flag law that allows police to temporarily seize firearms from people believed to pose a threat to themselves or others. 

But lawmakers stopped short of outlawing assault weapons under a bill proposed by former Gov. Ralph Northam, which several Democrats helped to block. And further efforts to tweak the state’s gun laws have stalled in the state’s now-divided legislature.

Virginia’s latest two-year budget does include funding for a new Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention Fund, a grant program that will direct state dollars to prevention efforts. But so far, the state’s health department has not outlined specific efforts it will make to reduce injuries.

Greene said the dashboard was released with an “eye toward prevention,” but the commissioner has also publicly opposed the term “gun violence,” describing it as a Democratic talking point. He doubled down on the position at a recent meeting of the Virginia Board of Health, saying the the term conflated homicides and suicides and failed to address the root causes of gun-related violence.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.