The U.S. public health community needed no wake-up call to realize that gun violence is deeply affecting the health and safety of Americans. But never before has the issue hit so close to home for them.
Last week's mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., which killed 14 people and wounded many others, occurred at an employee holiday party hosted by the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the shooting was “deeply personal” for him. He urged Congress, which has long been paralyzed on the issue, to take action on “common-sense measures,” given that about 32,000 people in the U.S. are killed by guns annually.
Achieving meaningful solutions, Benjamin said, will require a change in the national conversation to understand gun violence through a prevention-oriented public health lens. And that will require up-to-date research data on gun violence, which the U.S. currently lacks. “Right now we're making emotional decisions, and people are just running to their corners when someone proposes anything, without actually having the evidence to back up what they say,” he said.
But evidence that could help identify solutions is scarce. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's last report on gun violence was released in 1996. That year, the Republican-led Congress, concerned that the agency was promoting gun control, barred federal funding for gun-violence research. Since then, efforts to restart federal research funding have gone nowhere.
“Data and research help to show there really is a problem,” said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Data also are crucial in evaluating whether “what you're doing is making a beneficial change,” he added.
Just hours before the San Bernardino attack, representatives of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the advocacy group Doctors for America asked Congress to examine how gun violence affects Americans' health. Dr. Alice Chen, executive director of Doctors for America, likened gun-violence research to the auto-safety studies that led to mandatory seat belts, airbags, safer highway design and a significant reduction in deaths from car accidents.