• Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review

Am I Next? Why Gun Violence Should Be Treated as an Epidemic

Samuel Yeboah-Manson, South Brunswick High School, Princeton, New Jersey, USA

Twenty-four thousand six-hundred and fifty-six people, to date, have died from gun violence-related deaths in the United States of America. Chronic liver disease has killed 38,170 people this year (Holland, 2018). Even though there is a gap of 13,500 deaths between the twelfth leading cause of death and gun violence-related deaths, very little is being done to reduce these numbers. Incidences of gun violence are only increasing in the United States. In fact, in the year 2021, 49,000 people were killed by guns (2021 CDC Data, 2022). For this reason, gun violence, which includes homicide, violent crime, suicide and attempted suicide, and unintentional death and injury should be treated an epidemic in the United States.

Before discussing why gun violence should be treated like an epidemic, I would like to provide a background regarding gun legislation in the U.S. because understanding the legal implications of gun legislation can help us understand why not much progress is

being made. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was originally a recreational group aimed at “encouraging rifle shooting on a scientific basis” (National Rifle Association, 2000). Today, the NRA has 5.5 million members and trains one million gun owners annually (National Rifle Association, 2000). Most importantly, it is involved in lobbying (seeking to influence a political party/official). They seek political power and have formed an action committee to channel funds to legislators, furthering their agenda while increasing their political representation. In fact, in the last year the NRA has spent $3 million to influence gun policy (BBC News, 2020).

Although gun legislation continues to spark fierce debate among Americans, there has been some progress. In June of 2022, President Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act into law with 14 Republicans voting yes. This law enhances background checks for potential gun buyers under twenty-one, implements extensive red-flag laws, encourages intervention programs, and invests in mental health programs and school security (Cochrane, 2022). However, it has taken too long to get to this point; and the government’s inability to listen to and work with the public health community is part of the reason.

One reason gun violence should be declared an epidemic is that it is, by its very definition, an epidemic. An epidemic is a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time, and this certainly relates to gun related-violence. U.S. guns kill more than 38,000 people and cause nearly 85,000 injuries each year (American Public Health Association, 2019). In this case, the widespread occurrence is not an infectious disease, but rather different factors that have led to an adverse outcome. Like other epidemics, gun violence has far-reaching effects that often change lives- and not for the better. For example, victims and bystanders alike are likely to experience stress, depression, and PTSD (Effects of Gun Violence, 2017). These effects may then be further exacerbated by the lack of accessible mental health care in the United States: one in five Americans has some type of mental health condition, but with a shortage of mental health professionals and more than 112 million Americans living in places where access to mental health providers is scarce, it is becoming increasingly difficult to seek out adequate help (Leonhardt, 2021).

Furthermore, the number of people dying from mass shootings alone in the U.S. surpasses that of other countries. 82% of all firearm deaths in two dozen populous, high-income countries, occurred in the U.S.; additionally, 91% of children ages 0-14 who were killed by firearms were from the United States (American Public Health Association, 2019). Children and their families continue to suffer from something that is preventable all because people refuse to take action. If children dying is not enough, think about how this issue affects those around the victim: those who have to sit and watch loved ones suffer because of one bullet. Think about the financial toll that gun violence exact. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, gun violence expenses like medical charges, daily care/support, and criminal justice expenditure cost the U.S. economy approximately $229 billion annually. Gun violence does not just affect our health but also our economy (AAFP, 2018).

Gun violence needs to be addressed with research and evidence-based strategies. Instead of blaming gun violence on mental health, which further stigmatizes it and prevents others from seeking care, we should focus on understanding systems of violence that make people more likely to act violently. Scientists should especially work with leaders in disenfranchised communities to develop interventions that reduce risk factors responsible for gun violence.

Utilizing interventions to reduce risk factors associated with gun violence such as exposure to violence can only occur when funding is made available. A step in the right direction, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Division for Violence Prevention (DVP) has already committed $7.8 million to fund sixteen research awards that would support grants focused on understanding and preventing firearm-related injuries, deaths, and crime (Funded Research, 2020). More institutions like The Center For Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins University are using research to inform advocacy for greater gun legislation by directly engaging with affected communities to implement changes, further involving disenfranchised groups in the process and tackling the systematic causes of firearm-related violence rather than putting band-aids over bullet holes (Firearm Homicide, 2021). This research is certainly commendable, but we need more research that will help develop promising opportunities to enhance safety and prevent firearm-related injuries, deaths, and crime and that will evaluate the effectiveness of such strategies to keep individuals, families, schools, and communities safe.

In conjunction with research, legislation is also vital to addressing this epidemic, and passing a strong prevention policy serves as an effective foundation for gun violence prevention. According to The Educational Fund To Stop Gun Violence (EFSGV), such a policy includes a universal background check law and prevents firearms from reaching the hands of dangerous individuals (Firearm Homicide, 2021). Passing strong laws that also promote equitable enforcement should also be a top priority.

Many people who do not see gun violence as a pressing issue never fail to argue that owning a firearm is a constitutional right. However, they fail to consider the repercussions of an amendment made over two hundred years ago. Surely the founding fathers of the United States never imagined that assault weapons would be used to murder the citizens they swore to protect - that guns would threaten the most fundamental right: the right to live.