Gun violence as a public health issue is not a new phenomenon. In 2014 alone, there were 81,034 injuries and 33,599 deaths due to gun violence in the United States,which equate to 222 Americans injured, and 92 killed, by firearms every day.
The leading “etiologies” of injuries or death due to guns include suicide, homicide, domestic violence and accidents. These causes alone demonstrate how gun violence intersects with other public health concerns such as mental health (21,334 suicides were committed with a firearm in 2014 in the United States), women’s health (women are more likely to be killed by domestic violence if there is a gun in the household), child and adolescent health (929 children under 18 years of age were killed by a firearm in the United States, many of whom were killed accidentally) and race (African-Americans make up 13 percent of the American population but account for nearly 30 percent of deaths by firearm). These numbers should be of concern to health care professionals, regardless of specialty. All types of physicians will come across patients who are victims or perpetrators of gun violence in various clinical settings.
As the student branch of Physicians for Human Rights, we are urging health professionals to view gun violence in the United States not only as a public health concern as outlined above, but also as a human rights issue. As a public health issue, physicians and researchers are made responsible for conducting the research that will help save lives. By acknowledging gun violence as a human rights issue, we make the government responsible for facilitating and supporting that research. However, this is a human rights issue that has been continually undercut in law, funding and action. Ratified in 1996, the Dickey Amendment mandated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The following year, funds initially allocated to gun violence prevention research at the CDC were redirected, leaving no federal funding for the study of gun violence. In this way, both law and funding decisions put a stop to the CDC’s federally funded gun violence research. Furthermore, in 2011, Congress introduced language into the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 that put similar restrictions on federal funding to the National Institutes of Health.
In 2015, the CDC was allotted a budget of $7 billion, of which $11 million was assigned to collect surveillance data through the National Violent Death Reporting System. This database includes numbers on death and injuries due to firearms as well as more than 20 other types of violent death and injury. However, at this time, the CDC budget includes zero funding for scientific research into risk factors, prevention or firearm safety. Surveillance data does not provide the same caliber of scientific data that robust research would offer. To offer a comparison, $6 million is allocated to researching spina bifida, a genetic condition that affects approximately 114,000 Americans, around the same number who are victims of gun violence. In other words, both spina bifida and gun violence impact the health of more than 100,000 Americans every year, yet no money is allocated to researching gun violence. This is not to suggest that funding for spina bifida research should be cut, but rather, that gun violence prevention research should be afforded the same federal financial support that a condition with similar epidemiological impact receives.
Experts agree that the first step to combating the toll that gun violence takes on American health and safety — whether related to crime, suicide or accidents — is to study the phenomenon, firearms and policies, and to identify more concretely and quantitatively the many variables that affect gun safety. In April 2016, Doctors for America sent a letter to four senior members of Congress, urging them to end the ban on firearms research funding enacted by the Dickey Amendment and to reinstate federal funding for the cause. This letter was signed by 141 medical groups across the country representing over one million individuals. The message in the letter, later echoed by the American Medical Association and the original author of the controversial bill, Rep. Jay Dickey, emphasizes the importance of research as a means to ensure safety. Just as research into motor vehicle accidents has lead to safer vehicles, research can identify which interventions are effective at improving firearm safety for Americans, whether it is safe storage or changes to the background check protocol, and by extension, reducing violence related to guns.
The letter put forth by Doctors for America, the statement published by the American Medical Association, and this organization’s intentions are not to advocate for or against the Second Amendment; rather, we believe that robust public health and scientific research into this issue is crucial to identifying ways to keep Americans safe in the context of guns. Current laws regarding firearms are not backed by scientific research by virtue of the fact that research on this matter does not is not legally allowed. Sound research will lead to sound policy, which we hope will reflect the true support of the American people. As it stands, most Americans are in favor of research as well as safer gun laws. However, this sentiment is not reflected by the actions taken, or rather, not taken, in Congress. Just as the federal government is responsible for protecting our second amendment rights, it is responsible for protecting our right to life and security. There are clear steps that our elected officials can take in this effort, the least of which is to fund research on gun violence and safety. This issue remains relevant tragedy after tragedy due in part to our government’s negligence. By failing to act, the federal government has made the issue of gun violence not only an issue of public health, but also one of human rights.
In viewing this as a human rights issue, we are holding the government accountable for its inaction. Each American has a stake in this issue in a way that transcends politics and party lines, and compels us all to think deeply about our right to health, safety and a government that works for the betterment of its people. While our government may sit in its inaction, we will stand for our most basic of human rights.
How to get involved:
- Read and share the letter written and signed by Doctors for America;
- Add your name to the many petitions circulating regarding guns, including this one;
- Find your state representative here and write a letter to them or send them this article, or use this resource to send them a letter;
- Most importantly, find out where your national and state representatives stand on issues here and call them. Find your representative’s phone numbers here.
This article is written on behalf of the Student Program of Physicians for Human Rights, a national organization of like-minded medical professionals dedicated to health and human rights. We have student chapters at medical schools around the country engaging with, discussing and acting on human rights issues. We also have a network of student-run asylum clinics at medical schools and host a conference annually, and encourage all students and physicians interested in human rights to get involved.