It’s a “human rights” crisis, says Dr. Nins Pons, director of the University of California Center for Health Policy Research.
The recent mass shootings in Chesapeake and Charlottesville, Virginia, and in Colorado Springs, Colorado, are the latest incidents in what has become a tragic escalation in gun violence.
Gun violence isn’t just a criminal justice issue, it’s a public health issue, says Michael Rodriguez, MD, MPH, a professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that gun-related deaths reached a new peak in 2020, at 45,222 — an increase of 13.5% from 2019. Homicides increased 33.4% between 2019 and 2020.
Dr. Rodriguez has been studying gun violence for more than 25 years. He and Ninez Ponce, PhD, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, received a grant to explore this problem in California, where about 3,000 people died by gunfire in 2019, 54% by suicide.
“Gun violence kills people. It also maims and maims many people and provides them with lifelong disabilities. These are health effects,” says Dr. Rodriguez. “By realizing that guns cause these health effects, we understand that it is a health problem. Once we realize it’s a health issue, we can think about it the way we deal with other health issues.”
He points to COVID-19 as an example of what the public health response might look like. Once the deadly nature of the virus was understood, doctors, scientists, and society at large looked for ways to mitigate the threat. They have mapped and studied the virus, developed effective vaccines, researched potential treatments and identified personal and group interventions to help stop the spread of the disease.
“It’s the same way with guns,” says Dr. Rodriguez. “We can look at what’s happening. We can look at what the risk factors are. We can look at what we can do to reduce gun violence in reasonable ways and then implement them.”
He said past efforts to reduce gun violence, such as bans on certain weapons, have led to a decrease in deaths and injuries.
The three-year grant, which Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Pons received in 2020 from the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, will support research on gun ownership and attitudes among uninvestigated groups represented in the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS). The annual survey includes responses from more than 20,000 residents across California.
Key research for public health efforts
Dr. Pons, the principal investigator at CHIS, considers the gun violence epidemic in the United States to be more than just a public health issue. She calls it the “human rights crisis”.
“It is the leading cause of premature death in the United States,” she says, adding that to prevent death, disability and injury from firearms, we need research and data on what interventions might be most effective.
“One of the cornerstones of public health is prevention,” says Dr. Pons. “These preventable deaths and injuries fuel researchers and advocates to produce actionable data to advance policies and programs that reduce violence, especially among at-risk communities.”
Until recently, federal funding for gun violence research was limited by a 1996 amendment that prohibited the CDC from using public funds for studies that “advocate or promote gun control.” Congress cleared the law in 2018, and allocated $25 million the following year to a gun safety study, splitting the money between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people were killed by firearms than traffic accidents in the United States in 2019: nearly 40,000. In 2020, 38,824 people were killed in road accidents. More than 45,000 were killed by the guns.
Additionally, guns were the leading cause of death among children and teens in 2019, according to the Stop Gun Violence Coalition. The same was true in 2020, where gun-related injuries were the leading cause of death among children and teens.
The goal of UCLA’s research and other public health explorations of gun violence is to guide public policy, Dr. Rodriguez says, adding that public sentiment is already in favor of increased gun safety measures. Various polls show that a majority of Americans, including a majority of gun owners, support policies such as universal background checks and allowing a judge to remove guns from people at risk of harming themselves or others.
The reaction to the opioid crisis could be an example
Dr. Rodriguez says he hopes to see gun safety tackled with the same nonpartisan energy as the opioid epidemic.
“Republicans and Democrats are coming together to find sound ways to provide information about opioids, to provide laws to protect the public,” he says of the drug crisis. “Everyone knows opiates are dangerous — they are dangerous and let’s do something about it. The same thing we need to do with guns: Get together with those we elect and help create safer environments.”
Dr. Pons points out that the United States has more guns and more gun deaths than other high-income countries.
“Building research and data on gun violence enables policy makers and advocates to take steps toward preventing gun violence,” she says. “It’s even more serious now with all the tragic events happening across the country with the racial tensions amid the pandemic, which has been fraught with a huge toll.”
Dr. Rodriguez hopes that thoughtful research on firearms and the harm they cause can generate enough public and political support to change laws and ultimately protect people from unnecessary injuries and deaths.
“I’ve seen it work,” says Dr. Rodriguez, whose research as a Stanford postdoctoral fellow contributed to the movement to ban cheap, low-caliber guns known as “Saturday Night Specials,” which led to a statewide ban in 1997.
He says sound research could inspire a similar movement nationwide.
“Just like with tobacco, with opioids — we have to change that, and we can do that,” he says. “We can do this because people want things to be different. And I think we, the health professions, can give advice on what we need to do to help make our communities and homes safer.”
Learn more about the work of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.