Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis

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We can use the scientific process…to help us learn how firearms can be safer. 

The numbers are daunting. Over 33,000 people die from guns in the United States each year, more than any other industrialized country.  The homicide rate in our country is twenty times higher than countries similar to ours. While mass shootings are occurring at increasing frequency and dominate newspaper headlines, most deaths –two thirds– are from suicide.  And perhaps most disturbing is that children less than 18 years old in America die from guns at a rate that is eleven times that of other countries; suicide is the second most common cause of death for our youth.

I tend to look at health and medicine from an optimistic, “glass half full” perspective. For most health topics, I find it relatively easy to take this perspective.  However, it is difficult to do so with gun violence.  Put bluntly, there is nothing good guns do for human health. Every death from firearms is tragic, sudden, and disturbing. Every death from firearms did not have to happen.

I also like to look at health recommendations from what is considered an “evidence-based” perspective. “Evidence- based” means that recommendations are based on scientific evidence and research. The scientific process attempts to look at questions from an objective viewpoint, and continually reevaluates previous conclusions to confirm their accuracy. Using science to guide us is our best chance at knowing what “works” for health problems.

Americans own more guns per capita than any other industrialized country in the world. Meanwhile, the second amendment protects the rights of Americans to bear arms. These facts will not change. What can potentially change, however, is the creation of a safer environment in which guns and people coexist. My hope– my “glass half full” perspective–  is that by approaching firearm safety as we have other public health issues, we can come together as a nation and take rational, evidence based actions to reduce harm from firearms.

By reviewing past public health challenges, our country can learn how to reduce deaths from firearms. A good example is how we have approached harm caused from motor vehicle crashes. Because of research studies, we learned that wearing seat belts and having airbags save lives. Meanwhile, the statistics have overwhelmingly supported the notion that driving intoxicated increases the risk of being killed — and killing others– in motor vehicle crashes. As a result, laws were enacted that required cars to be made with airbags, drivers to wear seat belts, and that have enforced not driving intoxicated. Even more importantly, because of what has been learned through research, driving culture has changed. It is not acceptable in our country to drive drunk or without a seatbelt. In other words, research illuminates important health and safety facts, laws support those facts, and behaviors change.

Similarly, if we ask questions and arrive at answers through objective research studies, we can use the scientific process as an important tool to help us learn how firearms can be safer in the United States. Already we know that gun safes and locks reduce suicides and accidental shootings in the home, but we need to learn more. We need to use scientific, evidence-based research to learn what other interventions can help make the presence of firearms in the home safer.

In our current era of political divisiveness, it is time to come together as a country to reduce gun deaths. Gun violence in America is a complex problem and solutions are often not simple, but if we approach this topic as we do other public health topics, and utilize an evidence-based perspective, as a country we may be able to make progress in reducing the number of deaths each year from firearms.

Listen in on my discussion with Dr. Mark Larson on “Gun Violence as a Public Health Problem”.

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