CDC awards grant to VCU professor researching gun violence prevention

Infographic by Gabrielle Wood

Katharine DeRosa, Staff Writer

Several researchers with VCU connections are utilizing nearly $5 million in grant money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence prevention and its impact on minority communities. 

The CDC awarded 16 grants to different researchers across the country to study the prevention of violent injury by firearms. Collectively, VCU affiliates will receive $4.9 million in funding for three separate grants. One will support a VCU Health program working to assess long-term injury to victims of gun violence.

Nicholas Thomson, a surgery and psychology professor at VCU, is the recipient of the three-year grant to research the effectiveness of the program, known as Bridging the Gap. In the first year, $649,720 will be awarded of the total $1.9 million grant, Thomson said in an email.

“If successful, BTG 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,” Thomson said in an email.

Bridging the Gap originally began as a study in 2007. The voluntary program works with people ages 10-30 years old, network manager Rachelle Hunley said. The program connects families and youth with resources to prevent reinjury. 

“If they do have that one positive person, they may end up going to school or getting a job and avoiding any type of violence,” Hunley said.

A no firearms sticker is visible on the door of a Virginian business to entering customers. Photo by Enza Marcy

Bridging the Gap offers personal case management to connect youth with community and mental health resources, educational and vocational programs, and social outlets. Thomson’s grant will work to study the effectiveness of the program in adults.

“When people want to change, they are more inclined to participate in the programs that we offer,” Hunley said.

Thomson is also working with Erin Austin, a surveillance coordinator at the Virginia Department of Health, to increase Virginia’s turnaround on reports of nonfatal gun injuries in emergency rooms. VDH will receive $225,000 to develop a system for timely state and local-level data monitoring.

The CDC funded nine similar grants at other state health departments, including District of Columbia, North Carolina and West Virginia. The grant is three years long, and $2.2 million were divided among the 10 states, according to the CDC’s website. The increased reports are meant to alert public health officials to prominent health problems and gun violence.

In 2018, 237 people were intentionally injured by firearms in Virginia, according to VDH statistics that are released every two years. In the same year, Richmond City saw the fourth-highest rate of assault by firearm in Virginia behind Roanoke City, Danville and Hampton. A 2020 report has not yet been released.

Thomson said that violently injured adults are more likely to either be reinjured or killed after being discharged from a hospital. They are also 88% more likely to commit violent acts in retaliation. 

Violent injury via firearms in Virginia disproportionately affects younger people. Those aged 5-34 years old account for 72.2% of the population affected by intentional assault via firearms, and those aged 5-24 account for 36.35%, according to VDH.

Black people — tallying at 12.7% of the Virginia population in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — are also adversely affected by gun violence. According to VDH data, Black people were victims of 72.4% of intentional gun violence that took place that year. 

Another CDC grant was awarded to VCU alumna Krista Mehari, a psychology professor at the University of South Alabama. Her study examines the behaviors of those at risk of homicide or suicide by firearm and developing tactics to prevent those behaviors.

The $1.9 million, three-year grant will help researchers find the best practices for preventing gun violence in high-risk demographics, such as African American boys and young men, and older white men. Interviews and surveys will identify methods of gun access, attitudes about ownership and the acceptance of prevention strategies. 

The results will be used to create a socio-ecological model that will guide research on gun-related injuries and public health interventions.

Former doctoral fellow at VCU’s Clark-Hill Institute for Youth Development, Anna Yaros, received another CDC grant to examine language used in the Crisis Text Line by those experiencing gun violence. The $1.1 million, two-year study is designed to understand the moments immediately before crises occur as a way to prevent violence.

Yaros is now a research clinical psychologist at Research Triangle Institute. Her expertise includes preventive intervention for mental health and youth well-being.

The Virginia General Assembly passed a variety of new laws in January that aim to prevent violence in the state. They include:

  • Requiring background checks for all purchases, including those between private citizens
  • Attorneys and law enforcement officers may inquire to temporarily revoke the right to buy or possess a firearm if someone poses a danger to themself or others
  • A person may only buy one handgun in a 30-day period
  • People cannot leave loaded, unsecure firearms in the presence of anyone under 14 years old
  • Local governments can establish gun regulations at public places or events


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