Demand a change on access to firearms

Retired generals and admirals have come together to demand actions and policies that protect fellow Americans and their communities. These senior officers are warriors, defenders, heroes and gun owners. They have seen combat, and they know the devastating effects of assault weapons on children, innocent bystanders and neighborhoods. The danger to average citizens cannot be disputed. Each year, there are more than 100,000 firearm-related injuries and deaths. Approximately 2,000 children, ages 18 and under, die from firearms across the country annually. Firearms were the leading cause of police officers killed in the line of duty in 2011. High-capacity ammunition magazines are used in 30-40 percent of fatal police shootings.

Firearm deaths alarm retired generals and admirals. Firearms are used in more than two-thirds of suicides among service members. The Department of Defense reported 349 suicides last year, the most ever. Suicidal acts by guns are fatal in 85 percent of cases across the country. In 2010, nearly 20,000 of 30,000 deaths by guns in United States were suicides. The national map of suicides correlates with the states that have the highest gun ownership rates. Suicide is an avoidable death, often the impulsive act of a young man or woman who feels they are at the end of their rope. Easy access to firearms makes it all too easy for the emotionally distressed or confused young person to take their life, or someone else’s, when just a moment’s delay could have avoided the tragedy.

I was one of these men who came forward. My perspective is that not only of a retired general, but of a physician. It is from these two vantage points that I am compelled to advocate for policies and legislation to protect Americans and help use our precious healthcare dollars wisely. Taking action to mitigate gun violence does both. It safeguards our communities from unnecessary carnage and reduces expenditures on avoidable injuries.

The injuries and deaths from homicides, suicides and accidental shootings are obviously a national crisis, but also a public health crisis for America. The national cost of these tragedies exceeded $57 billion in 2010. In 2011 alone, a single week of gun crime in six cities generated a price tag of $38 million.

For years, Congress has barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other scientific agencies from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” In practical terms, this legislation has shut down research on how mass shootings occur and why the perpetrators are disposed to commit such terrible acts. It has forestalled any rigorous research into the long-term public health costs of gun violence — emergency room visits, lost productivity and family stress all have important national, state and local financial implications. Law enforcement, health officials and political leaders cannot effectively take action if they lack basic information on the causes of gun violence. We all have a right to know the facts if we want to have effective prevention and promote better strategies to protect our communities.

In these times, when the country faces immense financial pressures in soaring healthcare costs, every step to prudently limit wasteful spending is vital.

The billions of dollars expended for injuries and deaths from gun violence can be put to better use in education, jobs and making our schools safer. The enormous costs of emergency care, long-term treatment and rehabilitation of the thousands of children, men and women injured by firearms can be avoided. Simple measures to safeguard our communities against unsafe weapons make more resources available for much-needed healthcare and community services.

There is much we don’t know about gun violence, and more research is needed. We need to learn more about who commits these heinous crimes and what motivates them to do so. We need to investigate how improving mental health services can help protect our citizens and communities. More research into promoting better public health policies to mitigate unnecessary deaths from guns and gun violence sets the foundation for dealing with this crisis.

We need research, better prevention and more effective legislation as a military priority — we need to do it as a societal priority. Soldiers take an oath to the Constitution to protect this country against all enemies, both foreign and domestic, and to uphold the laws of the land. That’s an oath for all citizens — to protect our families and neighbors and uphold the laws that keep our nation strong. What makes our country great is that we can do both — be responsible gun owners and keep our communities safe.

Xenakis, is a psychiatrist and retired Army brigadier general. He is the founder of the Center for Translational Medicine.