Af­ter too many missed op­por­tu­ni­ties, it’s time to take ac­tion and end the gun vi­o­lence epi­demic

Modern Healthcare - - COMMENT - By Dr. Ge­orges Ben­jamin

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.

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