Can we stop the gun violence epidemic? Yes, by treating it as a health crisis

Can we stop the gun violence epidemic? Yes, by treating it as a health crisis
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After each new episode in our nation’s worsening gun violence epidemic, the same two things happen: First, our screens and social media feeds are saturated with hauntingly familiar images — and then we’re told that it’s too soon to talk about gun laws. We need to break this cycle.

For physicians, this is particularly poignant. While the rest of the country sees the television coverage from a distance, we see the trauma up close. Audiences see the vigils; we see the victims. And after audiences turn their attention to the next news story, we see patients through their long and painful roads to recovery. And for all these reasons, it is time for physicians and nurses to speak out.

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Medical workers don’t have the luxury of becoming desensitized to the repetitive violence. Which is why we also know that the predictable, repetitive conversation — the misguided idea that it would be easier to address mental health than fix our insanely insufficient gun safety laws — must stop.

 

As a psychiatrist, I know that the idea of locking up potentially dangerous people is never that simple. And as many lawyers have noted, it’s probably not even constitutional.

Where policymakers, lobbyists, and advocates have failed, it is up to physicians, nurses, scientists, and researchers to lead.

But unlike other conversations physicians in particular are used to having, this is one where critical data are missing—questions like: How many assault rifles are in circulation? How many gun incidents are intentional, and how many are accidental? Is a community safer with more guns or fewer?

The answer is that no one knows with certainty because for the last 22 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been effectively banned from researching gun violence in any meaningful way.

That is unacceptable.

While Congress recently tried to lift this ban on paper, in truth there won’t be any funding for public research in the near future.

Gun violence is a bigger threat than Ebola or Zika, two epidemics we were more than willing to address. In fact every day, on average, 96 Americans are killed with guns, according to CDC data. Seven of them are children and teenagers. By comparison, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa earlier this decade killed only two people in the United States, and the total known worldwide death toll according to the World Health Organization — 11,310 — is equivalent to about four months’ worth of gun deaths in the United States.

The medical profession needs to react to those horrifying facts with the same fear and anxiety that we did to Ebola and Zika, yet we do not.

We need to treat gun violence like the health crisis it is. We should prevent gun deaths the same way we’ve prevented deaths from cigarette smoking, or car crashes, or curable diseases.

But without CDC research, we don’t have hard evidence from which to develop solutions. And that makes it all too easy for gun advocates to say there isn’t sufficient proof of a problem.

We now associate certain cities with tragedies that took place there. Newtown. Orlando. Las Vegas. Parkland.

But gun violence isn’t just about mass shootings. It happens in communities of all kinds. Two summers ago, my friend and the Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Dr. Dennis Charney, was shot near his home in the suburbs of New York City.

He recovered and today speaks powerfully about personal resilience: the strength to move forward, to rebuild and appreciate life’s blessings.

What we need today is political resilience: the courage to seek the truth, ask questions, and act when the answers don’t suffice.

By choosing not to know the facts behind gun violence, our country sends the message that we’re afraid of the truth.

Inquiry is not only the foundation of science — it’s the foundation of democracy. We won’t end the gun epidemic until we begin to return knowledge to its rightful place.

But there is hope. Before he died, the congressman who wrote the law that bans CDC gun safety research, Rep. Jay Dickey, had a change of heart. He admitted his mistake and asked that our country seek the truth. Change is possible.

It starts with scholarly inquiry into gun violence, without which we will never prevent it. If we’re going to break the cycle of violence, we need to break the cycle of what happens next — our habit of scapegoating mental health and surrendering to a fearful new normal.

No student should be afraid just to go to school. No one should be afraid of their street, or the mall, or the movie theater, or their house of worship.

And no one should be afraid of knowledge. That’s what we teach in learning institutions like our medical school — and it should be equally true in the halls of power, from the CDC to Congress to the White House.

Dr. Kenneth L. Davis is the president and CEO of Mount Sinai Health System.