Public Health’s Obligation to Address Gun Violence

Sadly this month I am adding my voice to those who are speaking out in the wake of yet another unbearably tragic mass shooting in one of our nation’s schools.  You may be like me in that each time this happens, you feel outrage and sadness and an urge to do something.  Short of adding my name to some petition and donating to causes that seek to end gun violence I mostly feel overwhelmed and helpless.  The youth of Parkland Florida are bravely making their voices heard and could, in fact, be the impetus to make real change in the reduction of gun violence in the United States.  Locally we can do more.  We can get organized.  Please join the NHPHA policy committee to create a local voice on this important issue.

As public health professionals we have an obligation to utilize public health strategies to address gun violence which kills over 36,000 individuals each year or one person every 15 minutes. Both Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and Georges Benjamin of the American Public Health Association note that we need look no further than approaches taken to reduce motor vehicle crashes as effective public health prevention strategies upon which we could model gun violence prevention.  In public health we assess the data to explain the nature and magnitude of the problem.  We research strategies, implement and evaluate them to effect change.  Kristof states, “We don’t ban cars, but we work hard to regulate them – and limit access to them- so as to reduce the death toll they cause. This has been spectacularly successful, reducing death rate per 100 million miles driven by 95 percent since 1921.”   Strategies included seatbelts, federal safety standards for cars, child safety seats speed limits and airbags.  All fifty states have varying graduated licensing laws for teens with provisions such as limiting hours youth can drive and the numbers of passengers they can carry until they have more experience.  Such laws have dramatically reduced deaths and crashes among teen drivers.  These concepts and approaches are transferrable to the prevention of deaths due to firearms.

There are examples we can draw from to reduce firearm deaths both in the United States and other countries with Australia providing the most powerful illustration.

Following a deadly mass shooting in 1996, Australia passed sweeping gun reform including firearms restrictions and a mandatory buyback program of semiautomatic rifles.  There is a national registration, an age requirement (18 or over), required training and storage, and grounds for license refusal (violent convictions, mental or physical fitness).  After the buyback program, there has not been a single mass shooting.

While talk of gun reform legislation can be politically divisive, Kristof cites 2017 polls from the Pew Research Center and the Quinnipiac University National Poll that reveal that both gun owners and those without are fairly close in their views on several policies to make guns safer: background checks for all gun buyers (93%,96%); preventing the mentally ill from buying guns (89%, 89%) nationwide ban of sale of guns to people convicted of violent crimes (88%, 85%).  However, in some areas consensus is less likely such as banning the sale of high capacity ammunition magazines (52%, 77%). 

New Hampshire currently rates a “D”grade in terms of gun regulations according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.  The Center finds that states with the strongest gun regulations tend to get an “A” in its grading system.  Tightened gun laws in Connecticut resulted in a 40 percent decrease in gun homicide rates. 

Last year NHPHA began to tackle this tough issue by adopting a policy statement to allow us to advocate for measures to decrease deaths due to firearms.  Our policy supports: universal background checks; improving data on gun ownership and firearm injury and death data; restricting the sale of military-style weapons and large-capacity ammunition clips or magazines and more.  Our need now is for volunteers willing to stand together to carry out advocacy efforts.  Please contact Rachel Maxwell, our policy committee chair if this is of interest to you.  The time to hold our policymakers accountable is now.  NHPHA encourages its members to join with and support the voices of Florida’s youth to call for sound policies to stop the senseless violence both in New Hampshire and across the nation. 

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