Features, Science

Experts say mass shootings should be treated like public health crises

Visitors stand in the Garden of Peace, a memorial to victims of homicide in Boston. PHOTO BY HANNAH ROGERS/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, America’s national dialogue on gun violence resurfaced. Many discussions focused on regulating firearm sales or addressing untreated mental illnesses, but some took a different approach: labeling mass shootings as public health crises.

Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University’s School of Public Health has conducted research on alcohol, tobacco and firearms. Siegel said communities should consider gun violence a public health issue.

“When parents can’t send their kids to school without worrying about whether they’re going to come [home] alive, then yeah, you have a public health problem,” Siegel said. “There’s no question about it.”

Some, arguing against the public health approach, have said that because gun violence is inflicted by others, it’s not a health care concern. Siegel disagrees.

“There are a lot of public health issues where the disease or illness is inflicted by others.”

Examples, Siegel said, include lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, drunk driving accidents and secondhand smoke.

“In this country, we basically have accepted firearm violence as a way of life. There needs to be an equivocal declaration that this is not acceptable, that the status quo cannot hold,” Siegel said. “The Second Amendment is really not an issue … public health officials are not trying to take away guns from law-abiding citizens.”

Siegel said public health officials advocate reasonable restrictions to keep firearms away from dangerous individuals at a high risk for violence.

Dr. Cornelia Griggs, a chief general surgery resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, had similar recommendations for reducing gun violence.

“It has to start at the level of the legislature,” Griggs said. “[We need to] understand that our Second Amendment rights comes with responsibilities.”

Deniz Gaberz-Mah, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, disagrees on civilian disarmament. Gaberz-Mah’s thoughts on the issue were influenced by time he spent teaching English to children in a Brazilian slum with great poverty and gang violence.

“[In Brazil], having a gun for self-protection is [an insufficient] reason [to own] a gun. Officials and police seize guns from residents,” Gaberz-Mah said. “Out of the 17 million estimated number of guns in Brazil, nine million of those are illegal … and in the hands of criminals.”

The intentional homicide rate of Brazil is six times that of the United States, according to a comparison of crime statistics by NationMaster, despite gun control measures like the requirement for documented evidence explaining the reason for owning a gun.

Regardless, Gaberz-Mah said gun violence is a public health issue in the United States and suggested focusing on improving mental health.

“Perhaps focusing on … tightening gun control may not be the heart of the issue here,” he said. “Perhaps focusing on mental health and having our doctors ensure [their] patients are mentally healthy may be the way to preventing future tragedies.”

Griggs recently published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “The Quiet Room” in which she advocated for additional recommendations made by the American Academy of Pediatrics including mental health services and firearm storage laws.

“I see the clinical effects of gun violence beyond just the bodily harm that it causes … [like] the emotional and psychological trauma that it causes to the patient and their family,” Griggs said.

Doctors and other health care workers, Griggs said, can have a larger voice in the conversation by pressuring politicians to change laws.

Gun violence differs from other public health issues because of the Dickey Amendment. Championed by the NRA in 1996, Congress restricted the Center for Disease Control from funding gun violence research because it was deemed politically motivated and a violation of the Second Amendment.

“We are not able to study gun violence as a public health issue, at least at a federal funding level,” Griggs said. “If you want to study it [as an] academic researcher, your funds must come from elsewhere, [such as] private donations and nonprofit interest groups.”

Moving forward, Siegel said, Americans should think of gun violence not just as a public health crisis, but also a leading one.

“We can’t forget the fact that firearm violence is an everyday problem,” Siegel said. “When the news media coverage of this Florida shooting subsides, it’s not going to be the end of firearm violence.”

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