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Effects of Gun Violence

What the Public Health Approach to Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Preventing Gun Violence


By Bettina Lanyi, Director, National Partnerships

Now more than ever, as we collectively hunker down with our loved ones to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing the value of a public health approach to prevent an epidemic.

As the CDC explains, the public health approach is a four-step process that is rooted in the scientific method.
  1. Define and Monitor the Problem
  2. Identify Risk and Protective Factors
  3. Develop and Test Prevention Strategies
  4. Assure Widespread Adoption and Implementation

Right now, as researchers race to find a vaccine for a brand new, highly lethal coronavirus, a public health approach shows us how we can block its spread by identifying the means of transmission and then reducing it – by washing hands, reducing exposure to others, and covering our mouths and noses when we’re out and about.

The public health approach can be applied to health problems like coronavirus and gun violence alike. It’s how we prevent deaths and injuries.

While we’re responding to the coronavirus by retreating to our homes, our country’s epidemic of gun violence continues unabated — and threatens to worsen. More people at home means more children, youth, and adults in crisis will have access to an unsecured gun in the home, raising the risk of incidents of family fire, or unintentional shootings, domestic violence, and firearm suicides stemming from easy access to guns in the home.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, about 4.6 million children lived in homes with access to an unlocked and loaded gun, and 75 percent of kids knew where that gun was stored in their home. More than half of all U.S. gun owners report they don’t secure their guns at home.

Fears and anxieties about the coronavirus have caused gun sales to skyrocket. In some states and localities, elected officials are designating gun stores as “essential businesses,” allowing them to remain open during the coronavirus outbreak. These factors make it likely that the number of accessible guns in households will surge right alongside booming gun industry sales. There are a number of reasons the risk of family fire injuries and deaths will be higher as we practice social distancing and isolate at home: isolation can lead to depression, raising the suicide risk for many; victims of domestic violence will be confined with abusers; kids have more time to explore throughout the house and get into everything, including any unlocked and loaded guns.

This is where the public health approach to gun violence comes into play.

From a public health perspective, none of those individual factors matter as much as determining a common point of prevention. Prevention happens when we first identify the problem (surveillance), determine the cause (risk factor identification), and figure out what works to stop the risk factor (intervention). We don’t yet understand the coronavirus, but we can prevent its spread by observing how it’s transmitted through human contact and reducing unnecessary exposure. In family fire deaths and injuries, we know the risk factor is access to a loaded, unlocked gun, and the intervention — which is safely storing and securing firearms in the home – will reduce those deaths and injuries. That’s something all of us can control: just as we wash our hands and practice social distancing to prevent the coronavirus’ spread, we can secure our firearms and talk to loved ones about securing theirs, to keep all of us safe.

Sarah Brady once shared a powerful anecdote about identifying the "vector" of a disease.

Years ago, shortly after her husband Jim Brady was shot in 1981, Brady co-founder Sarah Brady spoke to a group of doctors at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York. The doctors were grieving the loss of one of their own, Dr. John Chase Wood II, who had just been gunned down in front of the hospital by a teenager who had illegally accessed a gun.

Last year, our #WeNeedToKnow campaign with March For Our Lives underscored that gun violence is a public health epidemic. The campaign successfully helped push Congress to fund federal research into gun violence prevention for the first time in more than 20 years.

Sarah told the story of Walter Reade, the U.S. Army field surgeon who gave his name to the Veteran’s Recovery Hospital in Washington, D.C. When Reade was stationed in Cuba during the Spanish American War, he realized he was losing more soldiers to Yellow Fever than to combat injuries. He didn’t understand the microbiology of Yellow Fever any more than we understand the coronavirus today, but he did realize that the vector of the disease — or the transmitting organism — was the mosquito. So Reade put in place mitigation tools — removing standing water, getting mosquito netting, and getting the soldiers to wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants — that reduced fatalities from Yellow Fever by almost 100 percent.

For gun violence, we know the vector is an accessible, unlocked, and loaded gun.

Speaking to the grieving doctors, Sarah Brady noted that while many disagree about the root causes of gun violence, we know the vector is an accessible, unlocked and loaded gun. And if we promote safe firearm storage and reduce access to that vector, we will reduce preventable deaths and save countless lives.

To learn more about safe storage, visit endfamilyfire.org.

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