Diagnosis: Gun deaths and injuries are a public health issue

For the first time, we’re convening public health professionals with leaders of gun violence prevention groups and a broad cross-disciplinary coalition of organizations to address America’s gun deaths and injuries as a vital issue of public health and safety. Why?

Guns are second only to automobile crashes as a cause of death for young people ages 1-24 and if current trends continue, guns will soon be number one. Based on the latest Fatal Injury Data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gun deaths overall have increased for the fourth year in a row to 33,636 in 2013. This rise is primarily due to a 2.5% increase in suicide by guns across all ages. Guns in our nation claim far too many lives and research has shown that much of this is preventable.

{mosads}In 2010, the economic impact of firearm-related incidents was more than $174 billion in both health care and societal costs. These numbers do not include the long-term physical and psychological toll gun-related incidents inflict on those who survive shootings or whose friends or family members are injured or killed by guns.

This publicly accessible data doesn’t lie: Easy access to guns in our country is causing a public health epidemic that we need to address urgently. The audacious goal of the American Public Health Association (APHA) is to help the United States become “the healthiest nation in one generation.” Doing something meaningful to reduce gun deaths and injuries is essential to achieving this goal.

The good news is there is real inspiration we can take from other issues that have taken the same public health approach we are now convening around gun deaths and injuries. Public health campaigns to address health problems such as tobacco use, automobile crashes, and obesity show us the change that we are capable of creating when we bring together effective policy, health promotion, behavioral change and consumer product safety to prevent deaths and injuries.

For example, thanks to such efforts, automobile crash fatalities have declined 25 percent since 2004 and tobacco-related illnesses have also declined as fewer adults smoke. At one point, these issues seemed every bit as intractable and hopeless as gun-related injuries and deaths may seem now.

Make no mistake, we are capable of effecting the same kind of sea change around gun-related  deaths and injuries as we have seen on these other issues – and we can do it by following their example and taking a public health approach.

This is why the APHA and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence are so excited to be convening, for the first time, a broad coalition of organizations, across numerous disciplines with the purpose of addressing gun deaths and injuries as a significant public health problem. Our first meeting, in March 2015, brought together nearly 20 influential organizations from diverse sectors including gun violence prevention, medical and public health, academia, suicide prevention, and law enforcement, to learn about each other’s efforts to prevent gun deaths and injuries. 

The good news is there’s already a lot of important and effective work being done, on a number of critical fronts. The even better news is that tremendous potential exists if we can all come together, as a whole greater than the sum of its parts, in the name of a true public health approach – one that is rooted, simply, in how we can work together, leveraging each other’s expertise, networks, and resources, to prevent the greatest number of gun deaths and injuries.

Our goal is not to disrespect the second amendment or to ban guns for legal gun owners, any more than the goal of automobile safety is to ban cars. Our goal is to use a public health approach to make this consumer product and its use as safe as possible and to keep them out of the hands of the people who legally should not have them. An approach that makes the guns safer, the environment with guns safer, and people safer with their guns can save thousands of lives every year.

We look at our initial meeting as an exciting and promising first step in creating an ongoing, multi-disciplinary coalition to frame and address gun deaths and injuries as a public health issue. We are thrilled to announce that APHA and Brady will be co-hosting a national summit in Washington, DC, this October for organizations and advocates who want to learn more about the role we all can play in curbing and ultimately curing our nation’s epidemic of gun deaths and injuries.

Gross is the president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and co-founder of the Center to Prevent Youth Violence. Benjamin is the executive director of the American Public Health Association, which champions the health of all people and all communities.


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