NPR: Increasing Recognition of Gun Violence as an Epidemic Could Aid U.S. in Curbing it

KRISTON JAE BETHEL/AFP via Getty Images Six months into the year, over 21,000 individuals have tragically lost their lives due to gun-related injuries in the United States. Experts in the medical field and public health officials have appropriately labeled this increasing number of deaths and injuries as an epidemic. Patrick Carter, the director of the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, stated, “I would certainly consider the problem of firearm injuries and firearm violence as an epidemic in the United States.” Carter explained that when considering the term epidemic, it refers to a sudden and significant increase in the number of incidents or occurrences of an event beyond the normal levels.

Since the mid-2000s, the United States has witnessed a continuous rise in the number of deaths and injuries caused by guns, resembling a sudden increase consistent with an epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines an epidemic as a sudden outbreak or unexpected spike in an illness within a particular country or region. Given that COVID-19 spread worldwide, it was classified as a pandemic. Similarly, labeling gun violence as an epidemic creates a sense of urgency and crisis. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the top public health official in the country, has long described firearm deaths and injuries as an epidemic, emphasizing the preventable nature of these incidents. President Biden has also referred to the surge in gun violence as a “gun violence epidemic,” and health professionals and researchers have echoed this sentiment.

In February, the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research organized a symposium titled “Addressing Gun Violence as a Public Health Epidemic.” The symposium adopted an approach resembling strategies used to combat disease epidemics, expanding the focus from prosecuting gun crimes to prevention, harm reduction, and culture shifts. According to Pew Research Center, gun deaths increased by 23% from pre-pandemic 2019 to 2021, reaching a record-high of 48,830 deaths in 2021, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Daniel Webster, a health professor at Johns Hopkins University, asserts that the level of violence is undoubtedly a public health emergency, as it remains a leading cause of death among various demographics. In addition to fatalities, gun violence significantly impacts mental health and well-being, extending its reach beyond direct victims.

Despite a slight decline in gun violence in 2022 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the grim reality persists this year, particularly during holidays and large gatherings. The prevalence of mass shootings is alarming, with over 300 incidents occurring thus far in 2023. Disturbingly, suicides account for half of this year’s gun-related deaths. Major cities like Chicago experienced devastating outbreaks of gun violence over the Juneteenth and Memorial Day weekends, resulting in numerous casualties. These recent incidents highlight the urgent need to address the issue of gun violence effectively.

The United States has faced similar challenges in the past. Pew Research data shows that the rate of gun deaths in 2021, with 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people, is the highest since the early 1990s, just below the historic peak of 16.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 1974. The National Institutes of Health previously referred to the rise in gun deaths in the 1990s as an epidemic. Factors such as increased production of affordable firearms and lax law enforcement at the time contributed to this surge. However, increased funding for law enforcement, reinforced background checks, and liability lawsuits ultimately led to a decline in gun-related suicides and homicides.

Experts argue that viewing gun violence as a public health emergency allows for a comprehensive approach to understanding its causes and implementing effective solutions. Collection of data and insights into violence prevention are crucial in addressing this crisis. The American Medical Association has consistently proposed measures to reduce gun violence, such as strengthening background checks and implementing limits on the sale of multiple firearms. Other recommendations include implementing purchaser licensing requirements and community violence intervention programs in low-income areas. These programs enlist individuals with credibility in these communities to advocate for non-violent resolutions to conflicts.

Identifying gun violence as an epidemic serves as a stepping stone towards addressing this fatal issue in America. However, it is not enough on its own. Patrick Carter emphasizes the importance of using scientific research and public health resources to combat all aspects of this problem. The label draws attention to the urgency of the issue, but more action and comprehensive solutions are required.



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