Should gun violence be treated as a public health crisis?

Dec 28, 2015

The mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 people dead was one of the deadliest in modern American history.

But, of course, gun violence in the United States isn’t restricted to mass shootings — firearm homicides and suicides far outpace the number of mass-shooting fatalities. An estimated 32,000 people die as a result of gun violence in the United States annually, and an additional 180,000 to 190,000 people are injured, says Sandro Galea, the dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health and one of a number of researchers calling for firearm deaths to be treated as a public health issue.

“You have a disease which we understand there's a pathogen for, but we have very little data on because our premier public health organization has been hamstrung for decades. So we know far less about what we can do to curb gun violence than we would if we had the same number of 32,000 people dying a year from an infectious agent, for example,” Galea says. 

Garen Wintemute, of the UC Davis School of Medicine, has done extensive research on the effects of access to guns. He explains the US government’s history of deciding whether or not to treat gun violence as a public health issue. 

“About 20 years ago, Congress took from CDC the funds that they were spending for research on firearm violence, and wrote some language into CDC's budget that has been interpreted as a ban on CDC conducting or funding research,” Wintemute says. “There simply is no money for research from CDC, it’s not that they're banned from doing it.”

The Obama administration has been pushing to make such funding available since 2013, but Congress has thus far refused to provide it. Other federal agencies, such as the National Institute of Justice, do research on gun violence, however, and the National Institutes of Health for the first time in its history is funding research specifically on firearm violence. 

Wintemute compares the issue of gun violence to motor vehicle deaths and injuries. 

“We were faced with an epidemic [of motor vehicle deaths and injuries] 40 or 50 years ago, and we did what America does best. We mobilized, we put smart people on the case, we gave them funding to do research. Policymakers were interested in translating the results of that research into policy,” Wintemute says. 

But deaths from gun violence are not the only problem. Galea says mental, psychological and physical injuries from gun violence affect hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. 

“We tend to forget in our public discussions that there are about 180,000 that are injured [each year]. So although there's no direct evidence about this, we can extrapolate from other data that about 30 percent of people who are injured after being shot will go on to long-term emotional sequela, so that's another 60,000 people a year who go on to have long-term mental illness, psychological distress. And that of course is not counting their family members, or the family members of the loved ones who died unexpectedly which is in and of itself a traumatic event.”

Wintemute, however, retains hope that things will soon begin to change in the way the government treats gun violence. 

“I think the tide is shifting. People understand, primarily because of mass shootings which are affecting our entire society, [that] we all have a stake in this,” Wintemute says, “We all need to make a commitment. At a minimum, I think that will shake loose funding for more research.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.