Gun violence is a public health problem. As such, medical professionals must address it, not only in the context of treating the physical injuries of gunshot wounds, or in the context of mental health services to victims of gun violence, but also from a prevention and safety perspective.
Pediatricians and primary care doctors routinely provide education and preventative care to patients and families. We provide education about the risks of speeding and the value of wearing a seat belt. We support water and bike safety for kids. We offer education to the public and individual patients about safety and health risks of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, dieting, opioids, stimulants and benzodiazepines. We champion “eating right” and getting plenty of exercise to prevent cardiovascular disease.**
(**We don’t always do this well, and for some patients do more harm than good—best example being the damage we do to people in larger bodies with and without eating disorders by propagating weight stigma rather than focusing on sustainable health.)
It is long overdue that we take a public health preventative care approach with regards to gun safety and risk of gun violence. Guns are killing people. As a medical community our job is to save lives and intervene on preventable deaths to the extent that we can.
For anyone questioning whether gun safety is a public health issue that falls under the responsibility of physicians to address with their patients …take a look at the data.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, in 2021, the United States saw over 44,000 deaths related to firearms, including suicides, homicides, and accidents, and 40,000 injuries.
Estimates say that 4.6 million children live in homes with at least one unlocked and loaded firearm.
According to data from Everytown Research and Policy, there were about 2,000 unintentional shootings by children between 2015 and 2020, and 125 instances when a child under the age of 5 shot themselves or someone else in 2020 alone.
In shootings on school grounds, about 80% of the shooters under the age of 18 got the firearm from their own home, a friend’s house, or a relative’s house — basically, a place where they had access.
In this population [pediatric/adolescent] when there is a gun in the house, the risk for homicide is three times higher and the risk for suicide is four times higher.
There are multiple studies that demonstrate an individual is more likely to commit suicide by firearm when there’s a gun in the house. Only about 4% of suicide attempts result in death; however, when a gun is used, 90% of attempts are fatal.1
Gun ownership is a flashpoint issue that has become politicized, taken as a matter of privacy, personal choice and freedom. As a public health issue, we talk about the impact of gun violence and risks of unintentional harm to human life. There are medical costs. The cost of lives lost. The lives forever and irreparably changed. The opportunity costs and cost to society related to those lost lives and enduring disabilities both physical and mental. There are mental health costs, medical costs, opportunity costs and the long-term impact of the trauma associated with gun violence.
To make matters worse, the patient populations that live in low income, under-resourced communities have the least access to medical and mental health resources to adequately address the aftermath physically, emotionally, spiritually and as a community.
The medical community successfully mounted a campaign against the powerful tobacco lobby to provide informed consent to the public at large and patients individually. It is now time for the medical community to do the same with regards to gun safety and the risks of gun violence in present day America. With broken communities. A highly divided United States. Post-pandemic. With growing income gaps between the have and the have nots, growing health inequities for BIPOC and other marginalized patient populations. And a mental health epidemic where need far exceeds access to adequate care.
1. Patel, Alok S. July 12, 2022. Is Patient Gun Ownership ‘None of Our Business’? Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/976323