After too many missed opportunities, it’s time to take action and end the gun violence epidemic
One of our country’s longest-running and most inadequately addressed health challenges reared its ugly head last week in Las Vegas.
The gun violence epidemic that kills over 33,000 people each year produced the largest outbreak in modern history in last week’s mass slaughter, leaving 58 dead and nearly 500 injured.
This epidemic is growing. In the past 477 days, there have been 521 mass shootings. But those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. On an average day, 91 people are killed with a firearm, seven of them children, with another 200 injured. Many of these tragedies are preventable. The most important question now: When are we going to act to stop this epidemic?
Our healthcare and public health systems have a role to play in addressing this problem, and every day we wait to take action is another day the epidemic continues to take its toll.
We can reduce the risk of gun violence with a comprehensive public health approach, engaging multiple sectors and working to address three things. We should use technology to make firearms safer, use training and behavior changes to make us safer with our firearms and make our society safer by reducing the number of firearms and keeping firearms out of the wrong hands. A public health approach to address this growing threat is feasible and can dramatically reduce the carnage if our elected leaders are willing to take some tough and courageous policy actions.
A parallel approach used over the last 50 years has helped America reduce another major injury risk: motor vehi- cle crashes. Like firearms, operating a car can be unsafe and lethal, but with proper instruction and protection we’ve made it safer. We used scientific methods to research and define the risks of driving and then used technology and policy to reduce those risks. We made the vehicles safer, the drivers safer and the roads safer to drive on. Today, car manufacturers build and sell a far safer product. They even brag about it. A focus on safety and harm reduction has made driving less deadly.
The public health approach to reducing gun violence looks similar. We can create a safer environment by passing universal background checks for all gun purchases, strengthening domestic violence protections and reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines. We can encourage safer gun ownership by requiring gun license renewal, mandating safe storage of guns and ammunition, broadening education about gun safety and increasing access to mental health services. We can make guns themselves safer by using smart-gun technology. There are dozens of additional, reasonable policies that could make a big difference in the firearm mortality rate.
We also need to enhance our understanding of the problem through research. While we know much about the harms of firearms, there is an urgent need for a robust research agenda to inform decisions and develop new interventions. Unfortunately, federal support for research on gun violence continues to be blocked in Congress and by the administration.
These common-sense policies can save lives. They are not at odds with protecting our basic freedoms to own guns, and they would also protect the freedom of all of us to be safe from gun violence. The missed opportunities to reduce this epidemic are stacking up, but every passing day is a new chance to reduce injury and save lives. It’s time to act and ensure we have more days free of mass shootings than with them, fewer suicides by firearm and fewer children who die from having easy access to guns.
We cannot stop all of them. But by following a public health approach we can make it much harder for determined individuals to wreak havoc, and in the process, address suicides and unintentional injury. This preventable epidemic must end.
Dr. Georges Benjamin is executive director of the American Public Health Association.