Methods: Participants were recruited using regional listservs, social media posts, flyers, advertisements in the state’s NASW newsletter, and word of mouth. Semi-structured interview transcripts were analyzed using an inductive qualitative content analysis approach (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005).
Results: A total of 25 practicing social workers (16 in focus groups) participated. Most participants shared that conversations concerning gun violence/safety happened only in the context of suicidality/lethality assessments during mental health crises or around interpersonal violence episodes. Others reported that they never asked about guns, even for high-risk clients. In general, all had no or limited training about gun violence/safety during MSW programs, and they reported scant training post-MSW in a few practice contexts (e.g., lethality assessments). Their desires for more training appeared to center on how to keep themselves safe, understand technical aspects of gun safety/storage, and how to respond if a potentially violent/suicidal client reported access to a gun. Generally, participants voiced support for harm reduction methods to address unsafe gun storage, access, and usage. Several participants shared personal experiences with gun violence in their lives beyond the context of their role as a social worker and expressed concern for their clients’ as well as their own safety in public and private spaces.
Conclusions: There is a lack of training about gun violence and gun safety in social work educational and practice settings, and it appears that few practicing social workers routinely ask about guns outside of lethality assessments for clients deemed at-risk of suicide. Participants had little preparation for assessing gun violence risk outside of suicidality. In both MSW programs and the field, social workers would benefit from specific training about basic safe gun storage and usage, which would help them to advise vulnerable clients and their families about limiting access to lethal means for risk of harm to self and others. Enhanced training and focus on harm reduction, as well as increased supervisory guidance, may promote the ability of social workers to have the “uncomfortable” conversations that might mean the difference between life and death for some clients.