• Leah Hess

Let's Treat Gun Violence as the Public Health Crisis It Is

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

As states begin to fully reopen following COVID-19 protocols, there has been a resurgence of mass shootings in the U.S. In response, chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledged that gun violence is a public health emergency. Public health issues, or medical issues that affect a significant portion of the population, are typically addressed in evidence-based approaches involving research, health programs, policies, and education. However, political debate has put legislation in a headlock. Current policies have missed the mark, and research into gun violence prevention has long been underfunded. With gun violence named as a leading cause of premature death in the U.S., it should be treated as a public health issue, rather than a matter of political opinion. Change needs to happen now, and a comprehensive approach with cooperation from psychological researchers, policymakers, and advocates alike, may be necessary to finally address this long ignored elephant in the room.

Every year in the U.S., approximately 30,000 people die from injuries involving guns. According to BBC News, gun violence has become more deadly; the 8 highest casualty shootings have occurred within the past 10 years. Even shootings that don’t end in death have serious consequences for victims and healthcare systems alike. Blood is a resource that is not always readily available, and caring for victims of gun violence can require large amounts of blood for transfusion (10 times more than what is required for other types of trauma patients, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine). Emergency preparedness requires hospitals to have a sufficient amount of blood on hand, which is costly and often unrealistic. Another way gun violence burdens the healthcare system is the mental health response required after gun violence incidents. These incidents are traumatic for those involved, and the counseling and mental health services needed to address their needs could be lessened by targeting the mental health issues that contribute to shootings in the first place.

In fact, one of the most promising disciplines needed for gun violence prevention is psychological and mental health research. The little research that has been conducted has already led to immense strides in what we know about gun violence. For example, a study by the American Public Health Association found a connection between domestic abuse and mass shootings. Similarly, access to a gun in the home is associated with higher suicide risk. Much is still left to be answered regarding the effectiveness of firearm policies, the effectiveness of community and individual level prevention strategies, and the cultural and developmental factors that may be early predictors of violence.

Until recently, there was very little funding for this research. In response to a wave of violent crime in the early 1990s, there was a push by the CDC (the Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and other advocacy groups to begin targeting gun violence as a matter of public health. The National Rifle Association (NRA) pushed back. In 1966, Congress approved the Dickey Amendment, a provision that prevented government spending on promoting or advocating for gun control. Although this amendment did not explicitly ban research, it caused a shift in research priorities, effectively halting the majority of gun violence research.

When the ultimate goal is to decrease injury, cooperation from multiple sectors including medical professionals, lawmakers, psychological researchers, and educational workers is historically effective. Motor-vehicle-related injuries were targeted with this same kind of public health approach and met with undeniable success. The view of the matter as a public health issue gave political biases less weight. Efforts targeted the creation of laws such as the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, increased educational programs, sparked the creation of advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and spurred a wide range of technological advances in cars and roads. Since the 1960s, when these measures began to be implemented, the annual motor vehicle fatality rate has decreased by more than 50%.

Using the historical successes of public health approaches, there is potential for vast improvements in gun violence prevention in America. It's a formidable challenge that overlaps public health, criminal justice, public safety, education, and media, but one that is worth the funding and effort.


Speaking Plainly:

  • The prevalence of gun violence has a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of society, and should therefore be viewed as an issue of public health.

  • Adopting a public health approach to solving health threats has been proven effective at reducing death and injury, such as in the case of motor vehicle deaths in the late 20th century.

  • Funding is needed to research effective gun violence prevention strategies.

  • Policy changes in response to this research should be swift and uninfluenced by political designation to maximize effectiveness.