Firearms violence could be better prevented if it was viewed as a public health crisis and given the same federal research funding and attention that have helped our nation combat deaths from HIV/AIDS, cigarette tobacco, and car crashes.
That was the message shared by health and safety experts who testified at a Washington, D.C. forum convened yesterday by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and his Democratic colleagues on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Pallone said he organized the meeting after Republican leaders failed to take on the issue, which advocates said kills an average of 93 Americans a day, including seven children.
Pallone said these deaths are “the harmful consequences” of a ban that Republicans in Congress implemented nearly two decades ago on the use of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dollars for gun violence studies. “We see the evidence each day in the tragic loss of life in our communities,” Pallone said.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), a lifelong advocate for racial justice, called it an “epidemic” plaguing communities nationwide. “And despite the misconception, the crisis is not limited to one particular region, social, ethnic or economic group,” said Rush, who represents parts of Chicago, where more than 560 residents have been killed by guns this year.
Las Vegas mass shooting, ‘one of many wakeup calls’
Efforts to address firearms violence as a public health issue are not new, but supporters said it was important to raise the issue anew in the wake of the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, which killed 59 people and wounded more than 500 more.
“It should be a wakeup call, one of many wakeup calls,” Rush said. Those who oppose these goals, he said, are “insanely fixated on the right to bear arms, but they forget about all of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
(In New Jersey — which has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation — the response to the massacre highlighted the difference between the two leading gubernatorial candidates; Republican Kim Guadagno defended the Second Amendment and asked people not to jump to conclusions, while Democrat Phil Murphy emphasized the gun control measures he outlined on his website.)
Gun violence killed roughly 35,000 people nationwide in 2015, with 22,000 of those deaths involving suicide, according to CDC data. The Kaiser Family Foundation used those numbers to determine a national firearms death rate of 11.1 per 100,000 residents; New Jersey had the sixth lowest state death rate, at 5.4, while New York, with 4.2, ranked third lowest and Pennsylvania, at 11.4, tied for 19th with three other states.
‘Appalling that we don’t do more’
“It’s appalling that we don’t do more to find out what the root causes are” behind these deaths, said Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who herself survived a near-deadly shooting incident.
One thing research has shown is that three out of four violently injured individuals will face a similar trauma again, explained Dr. Kyle Fischer, who heads the National Network of Hospital-based Violence Intervention Programs. Discharging these patients back into the same community without intervening is like sending a heart-attack sufferer home without prescribing aspirin or addressing blood pressure, diet, or exercise, he said.
According to a study released in mid-October by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, more than 41 percent of Garden State children under age 18 — and 46 percent nationwide — have experienced at least one
“Adverse Childhood Experience,” like the death or incarceration of a parent, living with an addicted or suicidal family member, or witnessing, or experiencing, a violent incident. At least 18 percent of these New Jersey youngsters have endured two or more ACEs, the groups found. (RWJF is a supporter of NJ Spotlight.)
‘Early exposure to adversity’ increases risk
“The impact of these adverse experiences in childhood continues across the lifespan, contributing to premature morbidity and mortality when traumatized children become adults. Early exposure to adversity actually become biologically embedded over time, affecting development and increasing disease risk over a child’s life,” Dr. Joseph Wright, a pediatrician, and professor at Howard University College of Medicine, said.
Wright, a Rutgers University graduate, and others said that while they are taught how to patch up patients after they are shot, little is known about the best way to prevent firearms violence. They don’t have good models for counseling families on how to avoid shootings or the data to understand why some children make it home from school safely while others are gunned down.
While much of medicine today focuses on preventive strategies, “unfortunately, I don’t have evidence telling me who to counsel on firearms injury prevention,” explained Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency medicine expert with Rhode Island Hospital. Although many people see more studies as a path to Second Amendment changes, Ranney noted, “I want to be absolutely clear: firearm injury prevention research has nothing to do with gun control.”
Calculating the cost of gun violence is complicated, advocates said, and must take into consideration both short- and long-term medical and behavioral healthcare expenses, among other metrics. Kris Brown, the co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which has studied the associated expenses, found it costs at least $24,000 to $34,000 to treat bullet wounds in the emergency room. This adds up to $700 million a year — without considering longer-term care or other consequences.
“It’s time to treat gun violence as the public health epidemic it is and invest in reasonable solutions entirely consistent with the Second Amendment to fix it,” Brown said.