Scholars and doctors in the public health sector say it’s time to declare gun violence a public health issue in the United States.
They also want the country’s leading health agency to begin research on the effects of these violent acts.
“There is no question that gun violence is a public health problem,” said David Hemenway, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and author of the book “Private Guns, Public Health.” “It’s not debatable. It’s self-evident.”
Hemenway is one of the gun violence scholars that spoke to Healthline on the topic of gun violence after the mass shooting at an Orlando, Florida, club that killed 49 people, and while Congress debated new gun control measures in Washington.
In addition to calling gun violence a public health issue, experts say Congress must reinstate funds to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that allow for research and analysis on the issue.
“There is no database that is going to give us the whole picture,” Dr. Jonathan M. Metzl, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, told Healthline. “It’s unconscionable that we can’t do research.”
Medical groups speak out
While mass shootings get a lot of media attention, in reality they are a small part of the overall gun violence narrative, according to experts.
About half of all firearm deaths are due to suicide, with a high rate among Caucasian men. The other half can be attributed to homicide, which has a high rate among African-American men.
“It’s a social problem, it’s an economic problem,” Dr. Garen Wintemute, co-director of the University of California, Davis, Violence Prevention Research Program, told Healthline. “We could call it a crisis. We could call it a priority.”
Regardless of the title, Wintemute said gun violence in the United States is “endemic.”
In the days following the mass shooting in Orlando, the American Medical Association (AMA) announced it would adopt a policy that called “the possession and ownership of firearms as a serious public health threat.”
Right on the AMA’s tail, the America Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement that detailed “a number of specific measures to reduce the destructive effects of guns in the lives of children and adolescents.”
Senate votes, house sits
Despite the growing chorus, the Senate early this week rejected four measures that supporters said would have brought some respite to the issue of firearm violence.
That vote came after a 15-hour filibuster by Christopher S. Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.
If the measures had passed, they would have blocked “people on the federal terrorism watch list from buying guns and to close loopholes in background check laws,” according to the New York Times.
Just days after the measures were voted down, House Democrats staged a sit-in on the chamber floor to force a vote on a new proposal that would ban people listed on the FBI no fly list to purchase guns.
The Democrats chanted, “No bill, no break.” Despite their protest, House Republicans voted to adjourn without a vote. Democrats ended their sit-in Thursday afternoon after occupying the House floor for 25 hours.
No research allowed
Limiting access to guns is only one piece of the puzzle in the push to stem the tide of firearm violence, according to experts.
Experts say the ability to research such acts and provide analysis is another crucial component.
Yet for 20 years the CDC has shied away from conducting research on gun violence. That’s because in 1996 Congress passed a law that mandated “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the CDC may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
Also known as the Dickey Amendment, the bill effectively removed money for firearm research and earmarked it for traumatic brain injury research.
Published reports say the National Rifle Association (NRA) pressured Congress to enact the law, after a well-publicized New England Journal of Medicine paper detailed the homicide risk if a gun is in a home.
The NRA did not respond to an interview request for this story, but the organization has said in the past that the CDC is still free to conduct the research if it chooses.
Hemenway said in theory that’s true. But the CDC is also aware that any reports on gun violence data would result in further loss of funds.
“The CDC theoretically could [conduct research], but there’d be hell to pay” he said.
Wintemute points to an executive order issued by President Obama after the shootings that killed 26 children and adults at a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in December 2014. The president’s directive instructed the CDC to begin research on gun violence. No reports have come forward yet.
What research does show
It wasn’t always this way.
Up until the early 1990s, the CDC conducted research on gun violence, according to Wintemute. Gun violence was on the rise back then and CDC officials were front and center in its research.
“At that time we mobilized. To use a cliché, we put our best people on it,” Wintemute said. “We’ve done it before with motor vehicles, with heart disease, with cancer, [but] with firearm violence we choked on that mobilization. The funding evaporated.”
The U.C. Davis Violence Prevention Research Program is one institution that does study the epidemiology of firearm violence.
Co-director Magdalena Cerda, Dr.PH, M.P.H, told Healthline her team culls data from a number of sources, including legal firearm purchases, arrest records, hospital discharges, and death certificates. The organization is funded by a handful of federal grants, state grants, and personal donations.
“The same kinds of epidemical questions you’d ask for Zika, we are asking for firearm violence,” she said.
While it may seem like gun violence is more prevalent, Cerda said in the 16 years that she has studied the topic the rate has remained relatively steady. The biggest drop in firearm violence came between 1993 and 1999, also with dips in 2006 and 2012.
She said mass shootings such as the one in Orlando are rare, although it may seem like they are becoming more common due to a lot of media attention.
“They are really a tiny proportion of firearm violence,” Cerda said, “just 1 per 10 million.”
She added that people have a stronger chance of being shot in a homicide, which averages around 350 per 10 million people, or dying by suicide, which hovers around 670 occurrences per 10 million.
Grassroots groups forming
Based on her research, Cerda said she doesn’t expect to see an increase in gun violence.
“I also don’t see it decreasing, unless we do something about the availability of guns,” she said. “We need to treat firearms as a product that needs to be regulated. If we do that we will see a decrease in firearm violence.”
While the prospects of that happening are slim at best, both Hemenway and Metzl are optimistic.
Hemenway said accidental gun death stories are no longer confined to local papers and TV. Instead, stories of, say, 2-year-olds accidentally shooting themselves because they find guns in the home, now make national headlines that bring more attention to the cause.
“I just saw on my Google news feed that a gun safety instructor got killed,” he said.
Metzl added that organizations such as the Violence Prevention Research Program and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence are doing good data work, in place of the CDC.
He also pointed to a number of new grassroots movements that are making headway, such as Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Still, he said the NRA has been honing its message for decades so it’s going to take years for these newcomers to yield power away from the gun rights group.
“They had a 50-year head start,” Metzl said, “so there’s a lot of catch-up.”