Gun violence isn’t just a criminal justice issue; it’s a public health issue. There was nearly a 30 percent increase in homicides between 2019 and 2020, making it the most significant one-year increase in six decades. The number of gun deaths in 2021 climbed even higher and is approaching the previous peaks in gun death rates in the early 1970s and early 1990s.
Healthcare must play a more significant role in preventing gun violence. The pandemic has pushed our health care system to its limit, and prioritizing anything but immediate needs will be difficult. Still, gun violence is one of America’s deadliest and longest-running epidemics. It is nothing less than an immediate need.
Healthcare across the country needs to build on proven hospital-based violence intervention (HVIP) models to create coordinated, systemwide programs that give doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and social workers the tools they need to talk with the people they treat about preventing gun injuries.
Over 90 percent of adults who live in homes with guns say they have never discussed firearm safety with a clinician; to lower that figure, Northwell is conducting a first-of-its-kind National Institutes of Health-funded study. Some are currently piloting a universal screening protocol where we ask our patients questions about their exposure to firearms to better understand their risk of being on one end of gun violence.
In urban settings, up to 41 percent of people treated for violent injury return to the emergency room with a gunshot wound. Hospital-based violence intervention can only succeed when closely linked with organizations working to do violence interruption and street outreach. Close coordination requires time, money, and relationship-building between doctors and nurses, law enforcement and violence interrupters, and senior leaders at hospitals, police departments, and community-based organizations.
Dr. Rodriguez has been studying gun violence for more than 25 years. He and Ninez Ponce, Ph.D., director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, recently received a grant to explore the issue in California, where about 3,000 people died from gunfire in 2019 — 54% by suicide.
“Gun violence kills people. It also injures many more people and maims people and provides them with disabilities. These are health impacts,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “By recognizing that guns are causing these health impacts, we recognize that it’s a health problem. Once we recognize it as a health problem, we can think about it how we do other health problems.”
The United States has more guns and more gun deaths than other high-income countries. The loss isn’t only in lives, but in dollars, with gun violence costing the U.S. more than $280 billion annually in medical care, criminal-justice costs, employer costs, and work loss. To widely stand by and do nothing is not an option.