Mass shootings as a public health issue

I agree with the New York Times editorial board’s response to the most recent mass shootings, as well as Ronald Reagan–that these atrocities–atrocities that occur more than once daily in this country–are not beyond the power of government and politicians to stop.  Times columnist Nicholas Kristof points out that we urgently need to develop public health policies that focus not on eliminating guns (an unrealistic goal given the current social and political milieu) but on reducing gun deaths. As a health care provider and researcher, I like that he goes beyond rhetoric, proposing a public health approach.  Public health approaches to gun violence prevention are favored by a large majority of Americans from both parties8-12-2015-3-58-40-PM

  • Assault weapon and large-capacity ammunition clip policies
  • Prohibited person policies
    • a 10-year prohibition on possessing guns for anyone convicted of domestic violence, assault or similar offenses
  • Background check policies
    • universal background checks
  • tighter regulation of gun dealers
    • allowing the information about which gun dealers sell the most guns used in crimes to be available to the police and the public so that those gun dealers can be prioritized for greater oversight
  • other policies
  • other technologies
    • invest in “smart gun” technology, such as weapons that fire only with a PIN or fingerprint.
    • adopt microstamping that allows a bullet casing to be traced back to a particular gun

Another impediment to using public health tools to approach policy prioritization in reducing gun violence is the Congressional ban on CDC and NIH research on firearm violence.  A coalition of physician groups has urged the ban be lifted. Even the ex-Congressman who introduced this ban, former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), has since called for the ban to be lifted.

Although this post focuses on gun violence involved in mass shootings, the leading cause of gun violence death is suicide.  Suicide is largely preventable through means restriction–the fewer guns there are at the time of a suicidal thought, the lower the rate of successful suicide.

The Washington Post has also covered gun violence recently, pointing out the racial disparities in causes of gun related deaths. Among whites, 77 percent of gun deaths are suicides, but among black Americans, 82 percent of gun deaths are homicides.

Where do you begin to help the public health campaign against gun violence?  One first stop is Organizing for Action’s gun violence prevention site. It contains several tools that you can use to take easy, online steps to reduce gun violence. It is a party affiliated web link. If you know of a good bipartisan or nonpartisan site for getting involved in doing more to prevent gun related violence, please share it in comments.



Published by Marion Sills

I am a Professor of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado. I work as a physician in the emergency departments of the Children's Hospital of Colorado and as a health services researcher at the University's Adult and Child Consortium for Health Outcomes (ACCORDS).

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