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Too Many Dead: The Need To Reframe Gun Violence As A Public Health Issue

A person from the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner's office removes a body at the scene of a fatal shooting at the University of California, Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 1, 2016, in Los Angeles.  (Nick Ut/AP)
A person from the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner's office removes a body at the scene of a fatal shooting at the University of California, Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 1, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Nick Ut/AP)
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Is it too much to hope that America may be nearing the point of progress over the urgent — and long overdue — issue of gun violence? More than 5,000 people have been killed by guns since the start of this year. More than 10,000 have been injured. There have been more than 112 mass shootings. Just this week, a murder-suicide claimed two lives on the UCLA campus. In 2013, the U.S. saw more than 30,000 gun-related deaths. There's cause to believe that 2016 will see a similarly horrifying tally.

More than 5,000 people have been killed by guns since the start of this year. More than 10,000 have been injured. There have been more than 112 mass shootings.

Children are particularly vulnerable to gun violence. Kids living in this country remain at a disproportionately high risk of being accidentally killed by a firearm compared with their peers in other parts of the world. Indeed, the very presence of guns in households appears to create the conditions for a deadly outcome. A 2013 study found that U.S. states with higher estimated rates of gun ownership experienced higher numbers of gun-related homicides.

None of these data should be acceptable, yet, for many years, we have accepted this status quo as an inevitable state of affairs. Anti-gun safety activists succeeded in setting the terms of the debate, even convincing Congress in 1996 to pass a budget provision stating that no funds given to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” This has stymied efforts to gather data about the full extent of the problem.

But that might not be the case for much longer.

Last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, along with 12 other U.S. state attorneys general, addressed a letter to leading members of Congress requesting that the federal government let the CDC do its work. Specifically, they asked that Congress repeal the provision denying funds to the agency for the purpose of gun research. Their letter states, “We strive to keep legal guns safe, illegal guns off the street, and sellers in compliance with the law. CDC-funded research…would enhance our ability to do that very work.”

In addition to stressing how this research would be a boon to law and order, the signatories took care to highlight how gun violence is very much a public health concern, and might therefore be mitigated by public health solutions. “Analysis of prevention measures, such as intervention and counseling by healthcare providers and gun safety improvements, as well as research into the root causes and psychology of gun violence are needed to inform our response,” they wrote.

By harkening back to this earlier public health success, the U.S. attorneys general give advocates of gun safety hope that America can yet curb the seemingly intractable problem of gun violence.

In this call to action we see a familiar pattern. Data have amply proven the damage done to our society by guns. Now, with state attorneys general joining the chorus of mothers, veterans, celebrities and physicians -- not to mention 67 percent of Americans -- who support a saner approach to gun ownership in this country, there is a real chance to reclaim the narrative. Increasingly, the call for regulation is viewed not as a threat to Second Amendment rights but as a good faith effort to resolve a pressing public health crisis while fighting crime, keeping our children safe, and respecting the rights of responsible gun owners.

The current lack of gun violence data is, in many ways, one important piece of this puzzle. More than two decades ago, the rate of motor vehicle fatalities prompted a public health push and safety awareness campaign to reduce them. In 1993, "Click it or Ticket," the seatbelt campaign, was born. Whereas only 15 percent of Americans used a seatbelt in 1984, by 2007, that number had increased to 82 percent. Motor vehicle deaths fell from 42,000 in 1997 to 34,000 in 2013.

By harkening back to this earlier public health success, the U.S. attorneys general give advocates of gun safety hope that America can yet curb the seemingly intractable problem of gun violence.

Related:

Sandro Galea Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Sandro Galea, MD, is dean of the Boston University School of Public Health

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