Why Gun Violence Is a Public Health Crisis

Why Gun Violence Is a Public Health Crisis

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared gun violence a “public health crisis” in a report released Tuesday.

Public health experts said Murthy’s statement draws attention to the epidemic of worsening gun violence, which kills tens of thousands of Americans annually.

The report marks the first time the Office of the Surgeon General has issued an advisory on gun violence and “outlines the urgent threat firearm violence poses to the health and well-being of our country,” Murthy said in a video released alongside the report.

The crisis is especially “devastating” for children, Murthy added. Gun-related injuries have become the leading cause of death for kids and adolescents in the U.S. since 2020; these injuries now kill more children than cancer, car accidents, poisonings, and drug overdoses.

“Our children should not have to live in fear that they are going to get shot if they go to school,” Murthy said. “None of us should have to worry that going to the mall, or a concert, or a house of worship means putting our lives at risk, or that we’ll get a call that a loved one in a moment of crisis has taken their own life with a firearm.”

Murthy’s advisory also stressed that gun violence doesn’t affect all demographics equally: Black Americans experienced the highest rates of firearm homicide across all ages in 2022, per the new report.

However, experts stressed that gun violence is ultimately a public health issue that affects people of all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“There’s no place to hide from gun violence in America,” Joshua Horwitz, JD, professor of gun violence prevention and advocacy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Health. “Most people are only one or two degrees separated from gun violence.”

Given the toll it takes on all of our communities, it’s crucial that gun violence be recognized as a public health threat, said Lauren Khazem, PhD, research assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“Gun violence is a public health issue because firearm-related deaths continue to rise,” Khazem told Health. In 2021, the number of gun-related deaths in the U.S. reached a near three-decade high, the report said.

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Murthy’s new advisory will hopefully help the public understand how gun violence falls under the umbrella of public health, experts said. Though guns are often discussed in terms of legal debates or Second Amendment rights, it’s important to think about how guns can affect Americans’ physical and mental health.

The role of public health policymakers and researchers is to investigate ways to eliminate an issue that is harming people’s well-being, explained Horwitz.

“A public health intervention is not a medical approach,” he explained. “[Rather], you’re trying to prevent something, and you do that by changing something upstream.”

Research centers such as the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions—where Horwitz works—can identify what’s driving the gun violence epidemic and look for interventions that might stop it, he added.

Murthy’s advisory was structured similarly: “What I thought was great about this report is that it really lays out what the public health focus is,” said Horwitz.

Among other initiatives, Murthy’s report called for:

  • Legislation that would require guns to be stored safely and out of reach of children
  • Universal background checks and purchaser licensing laws that make it more difficult to purchase guns
  • Firearm removal policies that protect domestic violence victims
  • Bans on assault weapons
  • More restrictions on carrying and using guns in public spaces
  • Safety regulation within the firearms manufacturing industry

Firstly, the goal would be for these policies to lower the number of American lives taken by gun violence—Murthy’s report stated that in 2022, over 48,200 people died from firearms.

Easing the epidemic of gun violence would also hopefully have a positive effect on Americans’ mental health.

“The collective trauma and fear that Americans are experiencing is contributing to the mental health challenges that we are facing today,” Murthy said in the advisory video.

Just over half of U.S. adults said that either they or a family member have experienced a “firearm-related incident.” Almost six in 10 Americans reported that they worry about losing a loved one to gun violence.

Like other public health problems—such as tobacco use and drunk driving incidents—gun violence can be prevented. Many see the issue as “inevitable,” but that’s not the case, Horwitz said.

“[People say], ‘This is so political, it’s a stalemate.’ But that is really old thinking,” he explained. “There are a lot of states where we’re making solid, steady progress.”

The fact that this advisory is coming from the U.S. Surgeon General is also a reminder that progress on gun violence should come, in part, from those who work in healthcare, experts added. There are a number of ways to do this, Purva Grover, MD, medical director of Cleveland Clinic’s Pediatric Emergency Departments, told Health.

Public health researchers can continue to “gather and analyze data on gun violence incidents to understand patterns, risk factors, and impacts on communities, [and] this data can inform evidence-based interventions,” she said.

For people at risk of gun violence now, community health centers can also set up assistance programs, said Horwitz. These centers provide support to make sure people stay safe, which could include housing, programs to help with substance use, education, and more.

Individual physicians can also take part by educating patients “about the risks associated with firearms, safe storage practices, and prevention strategies,” Grover said. Institutions that train physicians can also help set them up for success in this area.

“[We should] equip healthcare providers with training on recognizing signs of potential violence, responding to crises involving firearms, and collaborating with other sectors to address gun violence effectively,” Grover explained.

Since many people can obtain a gun if they choose, it’s important for healthcare workers to develop strategies to reduce harm whenever possible.

“The healthcare community should collaborate with firearm owners to identify ways to safely store firearms that make the most sense,” said Khazem. “Even if complete removal of a firearm isn’t an option, just placing one small step between someone and a firearm can mean the difference between life and death.”

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