As the nation comes together to mourn another mass tragedy of lives lost too soon, we must also come together in a call to action. Gun violence, big and small, is preventable with a comprehensive public health approach that keeps families and communities safe — it is not a partisan issue.
While mass shootings grab the headlines, the majority of gun violence is smaller and sinister in its pervasiveness. This is where we should focus our efforts, to have the most impact. As we all know, guns are the weapon of choice for mass homicides. Reducing the number of these events is imperative as well. Additionally, guns are the leading method of suicide in the U.S., accounting for half of all suicide deaths. Although most people attempting suicide choose drug overdose, only 2 percent of these drug overdose attempts end in death, compared with 85-91 percent of gun suicide attempts.
More Americans have died from guns in the United States — since 1968 — than on battlefields of all the wars in American history. Gun violence cost the U.S. $229 billion in 2015, or an average of $700 for each of the 393 million guns owned by civilians in America. The societal costs of firearm assault injury include work loss, medical/mental health care, emergency transportation, police/criminal justice activities, insurance claims processing, employer costs and decreased quality of life.
It is not only the direct gunshot victims and their families who suffer. Exposure to gun violence can have serious health consequences to anyone witnessing it, and gun violence can destroy entire communities by making people fearful to go out and companies less likely to locate and invest there.
If we do nothing, in next decade, 1 million Americans will be shot.
Gun violence has been identified as a public health crisis in the United States by several leading and credible health organizations. But there are ways to help the situation. For instance, the approach used to reduce motor vehicle injuries and deaths can be highlighted. The CDC calls the reduction in motor vehicle injuries in the US the greatest public health accomplishment of the 20th century. The initial approach focused on drivers, “if drivers always followed the laws there would be no crashes.” When that proved ineffective, the focus was shifted by the public health community and the new question became, “Not, WHO caused the crash? But what caused the injury?” Instead of blaming drivers, the common goal was to make vehicles safer — and it worked! Airbags and other technologies were developed, and cars became safer. Drivers today are not better than they were in the 1950s yet driving fatalities have fallen by 85%.
A similar approach would be a solution for guns. We don’t have to change people, we must create a system where it is hard to make mistakes, hard to behave inappropriately and where no one is seriously injured. Instead of searching for someone to blame for unintentional firearm deaths, let’s work collectively to make guns safer. We can decrease deaths by firearms without changing laws or anyone’s mental health. Gun organizations are very safety oriented. Let’s find common ground where we can agree as a community to focus our efforts. For example, as a community, we could begin with a public health campaign to prevent unintentional firearm deaths in children ages 0-14. Children in this age group living in the United States die by unintentional firearm death at a rate that is 10 times greater than any other first world country. Another approach would be to focus efforts on reducing firearm death by suicide. More Americans die by gun suicide than by homicides.
In addition to making guns safer, our leaders must act. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, which will require checks for all gun purchases, keeping firearms away from people who are legally prohibited from owning them. The House also included funding in its version of the fiscal year 2020 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill for gun violence prevention research, which will allow scientists to determine the best ways to prevent and address gun violence. Legislators in the Senate must immediately follow the lead of their colleagues in the House and pass these critical public health measures.
As a community, we must encourage our leaders to use a public health approach to decreasing deaths by gun violence. This involves all of us sharing the responsibility of the problem and coming together to be part of the solution.
Ximena Garcia is a retired physician who lives in Topeka.