Strategies for Discussing Firearms Storage Safety in Primary Care: Veteran Perspectives

J Gen Intern Med. 2021 Jun;36(6):1492-1502. doi: 10.1007/s11606-020-06412-x. Epub 2021 Jan 26.


Background: Two-thirds of veteran suicides are attributable to firearm injury. Although half of veterans who die by suicide are seen in primary care settings in the month prior to death, little is known about how to promote firearm safety within primary care.

Objective: Describe veterans' perspectives on discussing firearms storage safety (FSS) during primary care visits, and identify key strategies for primary care teams to use in discussing FSS with veterans at elevated risk for suicide.

Design: Qualitative analysis of transcripts and notes from four veteran focus groups and from individual semi-structured interviews with six veterans.

Participants: Altogether, 68 veterans participated. Three of the groups were associated with one Veterans Health Administration facility. Groups were diverse in age, service era, and gender.

Approach: The goals of the focus groups and interviews were to assess acceptance of FSS discussions during primary care visits, identify facilitators and barriers to conducting FSS discussions, and identify strategies for primary care teams to use to effectively conduct FSS discussions. Transcripts and meeting notes were analyzed using a grounded theory approach.

Key results: There was general acceptance of having FSS discussions in primary care. Yet, most veterans did not support direct questioning about firearm ownership, which may trigger fears of having firearms taken away or limit access to firearms. Participants recommended primary care teams provide rationale for FSS discussions and be prepared to provide information on legal consequences of disclosing firearm ownership. Strategies suggested for primary care staff also included using a personalized, caring, and conversational approach rather than highly scripted or checklist approach, engaging veterans in a non-judgmental manner, and conveying respect for veterans' knowledge of firearms.

Conclusions: Discussing FSS with veterans in primary care settings is a promising upstream approach that can complement other suicide prevention efforts, but must be conducted in a veteran-centric manner.

Keywords: firearms safety; primary care; suicide.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Firearms*
  • Humans
  • Primary Health Care
  • Suicide*
  • United States
  • Veterans*
  • Wounds, Gunshot*