Written by NPA President Cheryl Bettigole, MD, MPH.
Yesterday marked 6 months since the tragic deaths in Newtown, an event that spurred many of us to action against gun violence. In that time, many of you have spoken out about the need for improved gun safety laws and for research on how to address this massive public health problem. Yet during that time, more than 5000 people have been killed by guns. Although Congress has not yet succeeded in passing legislation, the voices of physicians together with teachers, law enforcement professionals, parents, and many other groups have changed the nature of the debate and created real momentum for change.
Gun violence constitutes one of America’s greatest public health challenges. According to a recent New England Journal of Medicine report, in 2010, gun-related injuries accounted for 6570 deaths of children and young people (1 to 24 years of age). That includes 7 deaths per day among people 1 to 19 years of age. Gun injuries cause twice as many deaths as cancer, 5 times as many as heart disease, and 15 times as many as infections.
For us as physicians, gun violence is personal. Whether we care for its victims in Emergency Departments or counsel family members after a son or daughter, brother or sister, is killed by gunfire, whether we help survivors to learn to care for themselves despite their injuries or care for children left fatherless by violence, all of us grapple with the effects of this epidemic on our patients. We know then that this issue goes beyond partisan debates and that it is not an issue of the right to bear arms but of the right to life and health.
Physicians have a key role in talking about the impact of gun violence as well as in leading the way toward interventions that can start to decrease the thousands of deaths we see annually from gunshot wounds. By restarting moribund research programs dedicated to finding effective ways to impact the problem, we can help to find new strategies that work. We need to compare safety devices such as gun locks, chamber indicators, and other mechanisms intended to reduce the chance that a gun could be fired accidentally or used by a teenager or child in the house. Once research helps us to identify strategies that work, we need to allow the Consumer Products Safety Commission to do for guns what it does for virtually every other household product: regulate its safety.
What we already know is that we can stop dangerous people from getting armed—we’ve already built a system that works very well 60% of the time. And, that’s because 40% of guns are sold on the “private market” and exempt from background check requirements. From a public health perspective this is bizarre. We would not allow 40% of medications to be sold privately, exempt from pharmacy regulations. We certainly recognize and encourage a right for all people who need medications to obtain and use them safely. We also recognize that used incorrectly or by the wrong person, medicines can be dangerous. Through the advocacy of extremist NRA leaders and gun industry lobbyists, our country has allowed guns to be put into a unique class of consumer product for which we prioritize access over safety and consumer protection, even when presented with thousands of deaths yearly as evidence that this is an unsafe system.
The number of firearm homicides in America has declined in recent years, leading to claims that our gun violence problem is getting better on its own. But in truth, the problem is worse than ever: The number of people treated for gunshot wounds increased by nearly half between 2001 and 2011. Why the discrepancy between wounds and fatalities? Emergency and trauma services have dramatically improved and are now able to save more lives – that’s why gun deaths are declining in the U.S. Good news, right? But the bad news is that more people are living with disabilities and chronic pain, and more healthcare dollars are being spent to manage long-term conditions. High quality trauma services are no substitute from stopping the trauma in the first place.
The American public understands that bad laws and ineffective regulation are fueling our gun violence problem, and they are demanding change in unison: An overwhelming majority of 92 percent of Americans support expanding the background check system to cover all sales and transfers. When we speak out on the importance of preventing gun violence, we are not alone.
The National Physicians Alliance is proud of the work of its many members who have pushed for solutions to this public health crisis. We thank you for your dedication to the health of your patients and the country and are grateful that you have joined your voices with ours to call for change.
As we look ahead to the next 6 months and beyond, NPA will be working to expand our resources to help physicians effectively engage with their colleagues, community leaders and patients to advocate for commonsense gun laws and regulations. We have no doubt that working together we can design a system for our country that both honors 2nd amendment rights and puts public health and safety above gun industry profits.
NPA staff and resources are available to support member and local actions. Available resources include: issue education, media and advocacy training, local event organizing support, and more…