What does it mean to say, as California’s Surgeon General Nadine Burke-Harris did recently, that: “Gun violence in America is a public health problem of epidemic proportions?”
Death and injury from gun violence is unquestionably a medical crisis. 36,000 Americans are killed by firearms every year. 61% die by suicide; 35% by homicide; and 4% due to law-enforcement actions and unintended accidents. Fatal shootings increased by 30% in America from 2014 to 2017. At least 100,000 Americans are injured by firearms every year, more than two-thirds from weapon assaults.
As if the sad and sobering data on deaths and injuries were not enough, exposure to gun violence is also known to have adverse health effects on people, especially children, who witness a shooting, lose a family member, or live in a community where shootings and gunfire are common. Research by Dr. Burke-Harris and others has shown that children who endure this kind of stress undergo changes in their brains and bodies (the “fight or flight” response) that significantly increase their risk of developing serious, life-long health problems.
What makes gun violence a public health concern as well as a medical crisis is that the methods that we use to address communicable diseases, workplace injuries, automobile accidents and other public health concerns can also be used to predict and prevent gun-related fatalities, injuries and indirect health effects. Well-designed research on gun violence can identify risks and protective factors and test measures to prevent or ameliorate the harm. Applying a public health approach to gun violence is exceptionally timely. The polarization of public discourse about gun violence prevention is due in large part to over-reliance on anecdotal evidence and injection of constitutional doctrine into what is fundamentally a health and safety issue. Public health is not a debating point for gun control or against gun ownership. Evidence-based policies are pro-life.
When Congress reconvenes in September it will take up legislation to appropriate funds for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to collect data and conduct research about gun violence prevention. CDC and NIH have not been able to study gun violence for 23 years because of funding restrictions included every year in Congressional appropriations acts. This year the House of Representatives has passed a Health and Human Services appropriations bill that includes $25 million apiece to CDC and NIH to “better understand and prevent injury and death as a result of firearm violence.”
There are also proposals before Congress to reinstate the assault weapon and large-capacity magazine ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004, authorize universal background checks and support the adoption of red flag laws, which allow courts to issue restraining orders to temporarily remove weapons from persons who present a risk of danger to themselves or others. Some studies suggest that these measures and others like them can reduce firearms-related death and injury but the data is incomplete, and we need to better understand how to design and implement reasonable policies effectively.
You can learn more about these pending proposals and funding for gun violence research at the Episcopal Public Policy Network website. Lastly, please join us for The Forum at Grace Cathedral on Sunday, September 15 at 9:30 a.m., where our guest, Representative Jackie Speier, will share her personal experience of gun violence and the prospects for legislation in the current session.