Is Gun Violence a Public Health Issue?

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The United States population is 327 million and there are 393 million guns in this country. The issue of guns and gun control remains one of the nation’s most divisive.

As the Los Angeles Times explains in a recent editorial, “to truly address gun violence, we need to view it through a public health lens — one that reframes the issue as a preventable disease that can be cured with the help of all community members.”

The American Public Health Association (APHA) shared recently that the U.S. has the dubious distinction of “outpacing” any other country with a gun violence burden. Highly publicized statistics vary from source to source, but they do bear repeating, beginning with the fact that:

  • 82 percent of all firearm deaths in nearly two dozen populous, high-income countries—

including Australia, France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom — occur in the U.S.

  • 91 percent of children ages 0-14 killed by firearms in this group of nations were from the U.S.

The Gun Violence Archive stays up to date on this year’s sobering victim numbers, already standing at:

Total incidents:         36,390
Deaths:                       9,578
Injuries:                       19,102
Mass shooting:               268

Ways but No Will

Having dedicated himself to the science of gun violence, health policy professor David Hemenway, Ph.D., of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health says we’re all watching too much media where “guns are the solution to so many problems. The good guy with the gun is the big hero.”

In real life, guns are not solutions to problems. The myth is imposed early and continues to be perpetuated. Children are exposed to 90 percent of movies, 68 percent of video games and 60 percent of shows that include violence, Common Sense Media said six years ago. Current numbers are surely much higher.

Dr. Hemenway also balks at the old “we’ll be able to protect ourselves when that intruder comes into our space” argument. It takes lots of training, repetition and practicing, over and over, to do the right thing right, he says, and most don’t have time or resources to get that — right.

Although the United States is an international mega-power, it as much to learn, Dr. Hemenway says, noting that “every other country has shown us the way to vastly reduce our problems.” That means if other countries can get control of gun reasonability — as New Zealand did in a hurry following its first mass shooting — we can, too.

Repeated surveys of Americans say they favor universal background checks. As recent history has shown, whether or not that will come to fruition still remains unanswered.

Prevent Rather Than Repair

The idea of “community” as it relates to “public” means motivating responsible gun owners, says Dr. Hemenway, citing his colleague Cathy Barber, M.P.A., at T.H. Chan’s Means Matter campaign. She collaborates on a number of pertinent issues with gun owners, advocates and trainers, as well as gun shop owners.

Dr. Hemenway’s must-do list includes licensing of gun owners and all that entails, including strong background checks, and only allowing firearm sales to a licensed owner. He also recommends a federal agency to oversee the massive gun issue — a heretofore novel and yet seemingly sound idea.

The medical community has taken its stand on the public health effects of gun violence after frequently describing for the rest of us in riveting detail what it’s like to treat victims of shootings. Formally, members have established the nonprofit American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in medicine (AFFIRM), with more than 40,000 healthcare colleagues.

The group seeks to inform medical protocols for their peers on the frontlines of gun violence, and to engage other first responders and stakeholders, as well as to educate and inform the public. They say they’d rather prevent than repair, and they worry about a culture of indifference and acceptance — of normalization that leads to divisiveness in this nation.

Meeting of the Minds Needed

It’s tough to solve a problem if stakeholders can’t come together to share ideas and solutions, the kind of proactive collaboration that provided results and conclusions around seat belts and smoking.

So why doesn’t the federal government jump headlong into gun violence research, specifically the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH)? The Dickey Amendment came to fruition in the early 1990s when gun violence did become a public health issue.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) said then that the CDC was biased against guns, and attracted Congressional support that basically eliminated any funding “to advocate or promote gun control”: That meant no studies related to firearms, and in 2011, the amendment reached to the NIH. After the Sandy Hook school shooting, President Obama told the CDC that the Dickey Amendment shouldn’t completely ignore funding for gun violence research, but Congress stopped it nonetheless. Currently, the amendment isn’t really in effect but there’s still no funding.

To that end, early this year, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced H.R. 674 and Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced S.184, the Gun Violence Prevention Research Act of 2019, which was referred to the Subcommittee on Health, where it’s been languishing. It would provide CDC funding to study gun violence for the next five fiscal years.

Random Attacks Are Few
If the United States is unable to tackle more research into gun violence, that hasn’t stopped smaller, independent studies, like one from the state of Utah. It published a report in 2018 with the T.H. Chan School, looking at suicide and firearm injury. It was supported by both parties, and by gun rights champions.

The results showed that 87 percent of those who died by suicide could have passed a background check and that Utahns with mental health or drinking issues weren’t properly storing or locking up guns. The most surprising fact: Those random attacks that people are warned about as reasons to carry guns occurred only three or four times a year.

So with all we know and all that’s yet to be known if more scientific research is conducted, the following have been suggested as remedies to the gun violence epidemic. The solutions run the gamut from more basic to creative:

  • Universal background checks
  • An assault weapons ban, along with a ban on high-capacity magazines
  • Mandatory license needed to buy a gun
  • Mandatory gun registration
  • Mandatory training for owners
  • Waiting periods for firearm purchase
  • More taxes on gun manufacturers
  • Safe and secure gun storage
  • No sales to anyone on a terrorist watch list
  • No sales to anyone convicted of a felony
  • Red-flag law: Families can ask a judge to temporarily prohibit an individual from possessing a firearm if those parties believe that individual might commit violence.

Also mentioned as possible solutions:

  • The federal government could buy the domestic handgun manufacturing industry.
  • It could ban the import of all handguns.
  • It could offer cash buybacks for all handguns in circulation.
  • A person buying a gun would have to enlist for military reserve service.

Scientific American sees it this way, opining that we just don’t know enough about gun violence perpetrators and we should.

Did they get firearms legally, or how did they get them?

Are our current laws being used to disarm dangerous people?

What do we do about the proliferation of underground gun markets?

How can we better evaluate violence prevention policies and programs, as in “Do they work?”
As the editorial board notes, research doesn’t infringe on Second Amendment rights, but it does support those other, unalienable rights we are all due, thanks to the Declaration of Independence. Don’t forget “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

One thought on “Is Gun Violence a Public Health Issue?

  1. A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

    Stupid spelling and ignorant English is more than likely the fault of automatic word completion – Sent from my iPhone

    Esse Quam Verdi

    Ray Snead


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