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10-year report shows increase in firearm deaths in Washtenaw County

Dr. Juan Marquez
Dr. Juan Marquez
Dr. Juan Marquez


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. I probably don't need to tell you that gun violence is a societal issue around the country and right here in Washtenaw County. It has tremendous impacts on public safety, the criminal justice system, our schools, and our overall sense of well-being. It is a significant public health matter. The Washtenaw County Health Department this week issued a new firearms report. It details trends in firearm deaths over a ten-year period. As you might have guessed, the results are not good. We're going to dive into the report today with Washtenaw County Health medical director Dr. Juan Marquez. And, Dr. Marquez, I appreciate you taking time today.

Dr. Juan Marquez: No, thank you. And thanks for chatting with me.

David Fair: I personally found the numbers to be alarming. In your estimation with what you've learned in this community analysis, is it fair to say this is not just a public health issue but a public health crisis?

Dr. Juan Marquez: I would think it's a very important public health issue that we do have to address in a multidisciplinary manner. So, we first looked at this report as a community request and, you know, and this started a few months ago, we didn't know what we would find. But certainly, the numbers or the increases are large enough that we do think that, you know, there's important action to be taken.

David Fair: There is a pretty extensive study in that it covers such a long period of time. You analyze them by breaking them down into two five-year periods. The study shows that men are far more represented in firearm violence. And that was true prior to this study. But how did it change in the years that you did analyze?

Dr. Juan Marquez: Yeah. So, that's a good question. So, you know, I think that if you look at the data nationally and in Michigan, men tend to overrepresent the number of deaths in firearm, both from suicides, from firearms, as well as violence from firearms. You know, one thing that we did show that we are still looking at is, you know, we do start to see more women involved in the last few years. We still don't have the final data from 2022 to see if that trend holds true. But it would represent a small but significant increase in the percentage of women who are also involved in, you know, deaths from firearms. However, you know, the vast majority is still men.

David Fair: One of the other breakdowns that you were analyzing through the course of this study is what percentage are suicide deaths and what percentage are homicides. What did you determine?

Dr. Juan Marquez: Yeah. So, our breakdown is essentially 70/30. So, 70% of the firearm deaths were due to suicide. 30% were due to homicides. And that is similar to the numbers nationally and in Michigan. But probably, our suicides are a bit overrepresented as compared to Michigan, which I think has a 60/40 split.

David Fair: In looking at how firearm violence impacts those of different races, what did the analysis show? And does that apply to geography?

Dr. Juan Marquez: Yeah. So, I think that was probably the finding that kind of stood out the most for us. So, you know, when you look at deaths overall in Washtenaw County, you know, you see that, close to numbers from the report, that the average age is 42. And, you know, if you look at the map, we did keep maps across different zip codes, it tends to be centered or increased in 48198/48197 zip codes, but you kind of see deaths across the county. Now, when you split it between homicides from firearms versus suicides from firearms, there's a big difference, I would say. So, the first thing is that, geographically, there is a big difference where the vast majority of deaths are really located in 48197/48198--the vast majority of homicides are in 48197/48198--versus suicides really are much more broadly distributed across the county, although they do tend to increase in rural areas. So, there's a geographic difference between the two. There's also an age change. So, if you look at the average age, like I mentioned, was 42, but when you break it down between homicides and suicides from firearms, those who are dying from homicides are significantly younger. So, the average age is about 29 versus those who die by suicide where the average age was 48. So, again, those who die from homicides tend to be younger and, you know, more in the east side of our county in the 48197/48198 zip codes. And then, you know, to your point, really, when we looked at race and ethnicity, again, a very big difference between the deaths from suicide and from homicides. So, let me make sure my numbers are correct here. We had 77% of those who were victims from homicides from firearms victims, who were 77%, were Black or African-American versus 10% who were white. Now, when you look at those who died from firearm suicide, it was 84% white versus only 10% Black or African-American. So, you know, really, again, it's sort of when you kind of look at the summary of this, homicide really is concentrated in two zip codes, 48197 and 48198, in younger African-American men versus suicides are really more focused, you know, broadly across the county, but more in our rural parts in older white men, right? And I think that data is very true no matter how we you know, how we analyze the data.

David Fair: You are listening to 89 one WEMU, and we're talking about the new Washtenaw County firearms report with Washtenaw Health Department medical director Dr. Juan Marquez. And as we start to take all of this analysis and the statistical information and try and apply it in some sort of practical manner, we can only hope that knowledge is power and that within these numbers that continue to trend up, we learn something that may lead to policy and program changes to bring them back down. Would expanded mental health services and accessibility be right at the top of that list?

Dr. Juan Marquez: I think that, you know, that is our hope. Our hope is really that our numbers are able to inform our partners, our community partners and agency partners, that are doing the work to reduce, you know, suicides and reduce homicides from firearms, so that they can better understand, you know, how to target their strategies and maybe where to target them. So, we've spoken with, for example, our community violence prevention team prior to that report being published so that, you know, we could provide them information about, you know, some of their efforts. And I think it affirmed a lot of the work they were doing. We worked closely with our committee partners, Washtenaw LIVE, as well as our CMH partners and our law enforcement. So, our hope really is that this data can be used to really help them target the at-risk populations and then hopefully also see the effect that their strategies are having over the months and years to come.

David Fair: And as you, as a public health official and medical director for Washtenaw County, what changes do you look for within your systemic processes that might benefit from better understanding these trends?

Dr. Juan Marquez: Yes, it's a good question. I think that, you know, one of the things that it's just understanding. You know, we do have, as an example, like, multiple clinics within our county system, right? And so, I think that we had a resolution that passed in 2018 about making sure that we do screen our folks that are in our county programs. And I think, with this data, I think we can tailor our screenings maybe a bit more, you know, towards the risk that we're seeing. So, I think that's just one example of some of the interventions that we can take in or that we can engage in. I do think that, again, I think that our hope is that we're able to really inform and provide data for our community partners to be able to better inform their strategies.

David Fair: So, as we talk about these statistics and about the analysis of the numbers and how it's going to be applied in a practical sense throughout the community, I don't want it to get lost that what we're talking about is people. And these are people who are losing their lives. And I'm curious. As a scientist, as a medical professional, and someone who has to apply these numbers in his work, is there some point during this process where it really hits to you that we're talking about the loss of life of members of our community?

Dr. Juan Marquez: Yeah. I mean, 100%. I mean, I think that one of the ways that we made sure that we had to, you know, double check some of the data that we get from our medical examiner partners. And one of the ways that we do it is actually by looking at obituaries. And so, you know, for many, many, many, many of these deaths, we actually read the obituaries for those. And, you know, obituaries of folks who are in their teens, twenties and thirties and older and just reading them really, really hits home that certainly these are important surveillance that we take on as public health. But, to your point, you know, these are people with folks, families and loved ones that are devastated by their deaths. So, you know, 100%. This is not just numbers for us, but certainly people.

David Fair: I'd like to thank you very much for taking the time to share the information and the perspective with us today. Much appreciated.

Dr. Juan Marquez: Thank you. I appreciate it.

David Fair: That is Dr. Juan Marquez. He serves as medical director at the Washtenaw County Health Department. He was here today discussing a ten-year analysis of firearms violence in our community. For more information and to take a look at the report, visit our web site at WEMU dot org, and we'll get you to all the right places. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Washtenaw County Health Department

Dr. Juan Marquez

Washtenaw County Firearm Death Report

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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