Gun violence in this country is an epidemic, and it needs to be treated like every other epidemic—as a public health crisis. The first step to finding a “cure” for any public health crisis is research. The new federal spending bill signed into law on March 23 included one sentence saying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has the authority to research gun violence. But with no funding attached, it’s meaningless.
Everyone in the public health sector must step up the pressure to treat gun violence as a public health crisis. Why? Just take a look at the numbers. Gun violence kills more than 30,000 people every year in this country—more than 90 a day. Another 80,000 people are injured by firearms annually. A study in the journal Pediatrics found that nearly 1,300 American children die every year from gun-related injuries.
In addition to loss of life, there is a financial cost to gun violence. The emergency room and inpatient cost due to gun violence is $2.8 billion a year, according to a new study by Johns Hopkins University. Despite these statistics, there is still much we don’t know about gun violence.
Last year, JAMA research found that gun violence was the least-researched cause of death. In fact, there was more research conducted on hernia deaths, which account for a tiny fraction of deaths compared to firearms fatalities.
We can trace the lack of research right back to a 1996 federal appropriations bill that banned the CDC from spending money “to advocate or promote gun control.” The policy spread to other public health agencies. It all followed a 1993 New England Journal of Medicine report that found that keeping a gun in the home was strongly associated with an increased risk of homicide. The National Rifle Association threw a fit and used its financial strength to lobby lawmakers for the research ban.
A little more than five years ago, after the Sandy Hook massacre, President Barack Obama directed federal agencies to improve knowledge of firearm violence. The CDC commissioned a report from the Institute of Medicine which said significant progress could be achieved in three to five years through research that addressed five high-priority areas. Those areas would deal with who and why people buy guns, the risk factors that influence the probability of firearm violence, prevention and other interventions, gun safety technology, and the influence of video games and other media. There was no follow up and there have been more than 300 mass shootings since Sandy Hook—and a total of 808 gun deaths in Los Angeles County in 2016.
We need to demand that gun violence be treated as a public health epidemic and demand appropriate research so the data can inform a solution. As leaders of a plan serving vulnerable populations and with a mission to improve the health status of the community, we say: ENOUGH!
John Baackes is CEO and Richard Seidman is the chief medical officer of L.A. Care Health Plan, the nation’s largest publicly operated health plan serving more than 2 million members.