Charleston Cabela's gun section
The gun section of the Charleston Cabela's store. Cabela's was one of the partners DHHR listed on their 2021 plan to prevent firearm injuries in West Virginia. Photo by Allen Siegler.

When West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources won a federal grant to study firearm injury prevention in 2020, it was cause for optimism. About 300 West Virginians die from gun violence every year; the $450,000 from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, distributed over three years, was earmarked for collecting data from emergency rooms and developing strategies to keep West Virginians safe.

And in September 2021, DHHR epidemiologists came up with the strategies they would use: helping state residents with dementia obtain safe storage devices and promoting safety courses for first-time gun owners. They’d do this by not only collecting the data, but sharing it with partner organizations — government agencies like the state’s Bureau of Senior Services and gun retailers like Cabela’s. 

But with only a month left before the end of the three-year grant period, it hasn’t happened yet.

Unlike most of the other states and jurisdictions that received the CDC’s Firearm Injury Surveillance Through Emergency Rooms (FASTER) grant, West Virginia’s DHHR has almost no information related to the project on its website. And the agency said it didn’t have any public records showing communication between the DHHR office responsible for the grant and the partners who were supposed to help carry out the 2021 plan.

One of those key partners — the Bureau of Senior Services — wasn’t even aware of the proposed collaboration. Nancy Cipoletti, the director of the bureau’s Alzheimer’s programs, said neither she nor the Bureau’s commissioner had heard of DHHR wanting to work with their agency to prevent firearm injuries. She didn’t know the health department had listed her Bureau as a partner.

“It could be that they just haven’t reached out to us yet,” Cipoletti said. 

DHHR did not answer an emailed question asking what steps it’s taken to prevent state firearm injuries in first-time gun owners or adults with dementia. When pressed, a spokesperson for the agency said the department has been collecting the data and sharing with the CDC as required, but was still working on hiring someone to work with partner organizations.

An opportunity where legislative action failed

The emergency room at Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston, WV. West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources received a CDC grant to study firearm injuries through collecting emergency room data from center’s like this one. Photo by Quenton King.

Many West Virginia deaths involve guns. Between 2019 and 2021, nearly 1,000 people in the state died from firearm injuries, giving the region one of the higher firearm mortality rates in the country. 

Because the majority of these deaths were suicides, researchers view strategies that encourage firearm safety for gun owners as crucial. Policies that promote those habits can reduce overall firearm mortality, according to Daniel Webster, a Johns Hopkins University public health professor who studies gun violence prevention.

In some parts of state government, firearm access has been a constant area of tinkering and tension. But the laws that have passed recently have generally expanded access to guns; a 2021 bill prevents West Virginia law enforcement from applying federal firearm laws more restrictive than the state’s rules, and a 2023 law legalized concealed carry on many parts of public college campuses. The presidents of the state’s two largest public universities — Marshall University and West Virginia University — both raised safety concerns about the latter legislation.

Some measures to promote firearm safety have been proposed recently, including several to make gun safes tax-exempt. But none of those bills made it through the Legislature to be signed into law. 

“Anything that you can do in a positive way that respects people’s rights to own firearms that can cut down any sort of accidental discharges and those sorts of things … I would have thought for everybody to be able to get behind that,” said Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, lead sponsor of the most recent gun safe bill.

Without lawmaker action, DHHR’s FASTER grant has been a nearly half-a-million-dollar second opportunity for West Virginia’s government to create a safer firearms environment.

The two implementation goals of the funding are to provide the CDC with timely emergency department data related to firearm injuries and to share broad findings with the public and local partners — groups that could help prevent and respond to those injuries. 

Public records requests indicate that West Virginia has been reliably achieving the first goal by collecting and reporting data — which has been used in-aggregate with the other states’ numbers to produce two CDC studies.

But the data hasn’t been publicly communicated, even as most of the other states have been successfully sharing broad findings from their own data. Of the ten government agencies that received FASTER funds, four states and Washington, D.C. have created data dashboards that let the public and researchers track trends in local firearm injuries. 

With their respective grants, Utah has created a public messaging campaign, Washington State has hosted virtual trainings, and New Mexico has put together a literature review and been holding stakeholder discussions. It’s unclear how Florida, the remaining funded state, has been using its money.

West Virginia’s September 2021 FASTER plan to share broad findings did not include a data dashboard, but it did talk about creating brochures and fact sheets created from firearm injury data. Those materials were supposed to be passed to groups that have regular, direct contact with first-time gun owners and older adults with dementia — with the hopes that the data would help West Virginia residents make safer gun decisions.

But unlike many of West Virginia’s peer states, that hasn’t happened yet. When Mountain State Spotlight made a public records request for all communications materials created from the FASTER grant, the only products the agency gave back were a letter and a short PowerPoint presentation — both which primarily used data from before the funding period.

In an email, a DHHR spokesperson said once someone is hired to lead the data dissemination of this and other injury prevention work, it will try to carry out its September 2021 plan.

Potential to save lives

Hunting section Cabela's Charleston
The hunting section of the Charleston Cabela’s store. Cabela’s was one of the partners DHHR listed on their 2021 plan to prevent firearm injuries in West Virginia. Photo by Allen Siegler

Marissa Zwald, a CDC epidemiologist who works with the states to implement the FASTER grant, said that while health departments weren’t required to create public-facing tools like dashboards, they’re expected to get the data to partners who can help prevent firearm injuries.

She said she didn’t know specifics about how West Virginia’s projects were progressing and tried to connect Mountain State Spotlight with DHHR epidemiologists in charge of the grant. DHHR’s communications team wouldn’t facilitate an interview and instead sent information about the grant copied from the CDC’s website.

What Zwald does know about DHHR’s plan excites her; she said she thinks the goals related to safe gun storage for adults with dementia has the potential to save a lot of lives.

“Firearm deaths and injuries are preventable and not inevitable,” she said. “To me, [DHHR’s plan] just speaks to the varying needs in states and how they’re able to take that into consideration.”

Webster, the Hopkins professor, also said the state’s FASTER funds were a significant opportunity to prevent gun injuries in West Virginia. While data can only do so much, he said any bipartisan strategies that reduce injuries and death would only serve the state well.

“I hope the West Virginia health department gets their act together and actually does something with the data,” he said.

This story was updated to add information about Washington State.

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.