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Gun Violence is a Public Health Emergency: It’s Time to Start Treating It Like One

Gun Violence is a Public Health Emergency: It’s Time to Start Treating It Like One

Where will today’s mass shooting be?  Last Monday, it was Denver, after the Nuggets win. And in a San Franciso night club.  The following Friday, it was in Ohio, at a GM factory. So far this year, we’ve seen some 200 mass shootings, and it’s only June.

Each time a shooting occurs, immediate alarm ensues, followed by constant reporting, identification of the perpetrator, and a psychological character analysis of the shooter. Victims are mourned, families and communities are outraged, and life goes on, until the next tragedy, and the cycle repeats. As a public health researcher, I see how we need to change the focus: We need to treat America’s gun problem as an ongoing public health crisis.

Public health crises are defined as situations where “health consequences have the potential to overwhelm community capabilities to address them”.  As a nation, we are overwhelmed.  Although each time tragedy occurs, the public  focus is on a specific venue, this is a national problem. Gun violence has become a leading cause of premature death in the U.S., with Americans killing each other with firearms a staggering 25 times more often than other high-income countries. 

If we consider mass shootings and gun violence a public health crisis, we would address it very differently.  For instance:

1. We would have public funding to fight the problem

When a health crisis hits, the public health department has funds–and can apply for more from state and government sources–to respond and protect the community.  But no such funding exists for gun violence. We require public funding to support our communities, prioritize mental health support programs and engage community members, from youth to survivors of gun violence, to impacted families and policy makers. Last year, for the first time since 1996, federal funds began to flow into research. But these funds are far less than those directed to research and safety measures around automobiles and food safety. Chronic underfunding of public health resources continues to put the lives of Americans at risk. The lack of funds results in slower responses to addressing public health crises head on. We cannot address this health crisis without adequate support for research, policy development and implementation 

2.  Better data collection to demonstrate where gun violence is affecting us

In public health emergencies, data collection is a priority. Treating gun violence as a public safety emergency would mean prioritizing data collection efforts from local to state levels.  This data would be collected uniformly, ensuring that the data is comparable across regions.  For instance, uniform data collection measures would mandate the inclusion of  shootings that may not involve physical injuries, and crimes that involve firearms. This data should be made readily accessible to researchers and to the community, ensuring that everyone has equitable access and understanding of the facts. 

3. Reducing gun violence through access to data-supported measures

 In public health, we learned from the COVID-19 and Ebola emergency responses that lack of data access hampers quick and informed decisions. Public health emergencies require data-supported measures. Over fifteen years ago, federal law mandated a national public health data network, including standardized data reporting methods. Likewise, with funding and better data collection methods, we could design better interventions and solutions to reduce gun violence. Access to centralized, real-time, and continuously updated data guides public health interventions. To do so, public health must focus on upstream methods: improving ways that reduce death and injuries from gun violence. 

So far, our nation has failed to treat gun violence as a public health emergency–perhaps because powerful gun lobbyists have repeatedly blocked such measures. This course of action has resulted in more deaths and injuries. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. People are dying from senseless, preventable violence. 

We cannot continue to accept that gun violence is the norm. We must acknowledge gun violence is harmful and destroys communities. Unless we begin to treat gun violence like a public health emergency, we will continue to ask where today’s shooting was and dread tomorrow’s.  Next time, those thoughts and prayers may be directed toward us.

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