Last week, we saw the passage of the first package of new federal firearm-injury-related policies in a generation. It was reported that the funds allocated to firearm injury prevention will likely be reallocated. And we learned that—with the stroke of a Supreme Court decision—states will lose a common mechanism for deciding who gets to carry a firearm.
Our nation has been horrified by the murders of 19 Uvalde children and 2 Uvalde teachers, two white supremacists who attacked grocery shop shoppers in Buffalo in October; the mass shooting at graduation parties in Uvalde that killed dozens; as well numerous, unreported gun suicides. Over all this, there is unrequited grief over the deaths of nearly one million Americans due to COVID-19. This includes two years’ worth of school disruptions and increased political tensions.
The changes seem dizzying—both hopeful and, at the same time, insufficient. Trauma-trained doctor, I am well aware that we can build our resilience against despair by taking action and pursuing purpose. Is it too late for that purpose-sustaining optimism and action to cease being meaningful? This is a story that can only be broken.
Nonetheless, from my vantage point as both the person who treats gunshot wounds, and as a public health professional who works to prevent them—I am not ready to give up what I consider pragmatic optimism. The urgency is apparent to me, but I also know there are many opportunities for action.
Public health science teaches us that there is no one act, law or organization that can turn the tide. It’s the combination that creates change. To reduce COVID-19’s death toll, we needed to use a mix of vaccinations, testing, ventilation and masking during surges. Similar broad actions are required to reduce firearm deaths and injuries. In and of itself, the federal-level firearm-related policies from this week have been both remarkable and insufficient.
And if there’s good news here at all, here it is: Despite two decades of federally-stymied research, we have a growing (but still insufficient) body of evidence on what makes a difference. The majority of this evidence, whether policy-related or not, is still inaccessible. Which leaves us a clear “to do” list of evidence-based actions we can take, today:
- Participate in local groups. It is an effective way to prevent violence of any kind, especially among younger Americans. They account for a greater proportion of gunshot injuries and fatalities. Big Brothers and Big Sisters are individual-oriented organizations. However, community-wide alliances like the widely studied Communities That Care program can help to reduce the likelihood of violence as well as other risks for children. Others, such as the Chicago CRED and Nonviolence Institute, which I am a member of, or the Wraparound Project address the root causes of firearm injuries through community support, hospital outreach and job training. For these groups to be successful, they need mentors, financial assistance, and local involvement. You can find them—and help them—in almost every city and town across the country.
- Plan a garden. Although it may seem absurd, the data is clear: plant a garden on a vacant land to reduce the amount of gunshots. It is possible to reduce depression, anxiety and isolation by fostering a sense and engagement with nature and enhancing your sense of place.
- Encourage safe storage of firearms. Most kids who shoot themselves or someone else, do so using a family member’s firearm. Most gun crimes involve a stolen firearm. We already have the knowledge to protect firearms from unauthorized users. You can use safes or trigger locks to protect your firearms. Most firearm owners use at least one of these tools. These life-saving methods are not always affordable, convenient, or accessible to everyone. Reviewing and discussing safe storage practices is one of most useful and practical steps anyone can take. Changes in norms could literally save lives.
- Ensure that laws in force. You can help enforce existing laws to decrease firearm injuries, which many aren’t well-known or understood. An example of many is the fact that guns are the number one cause for death in domestic violence murders and that they can be used as a weapon to commit mass killings. Many states, including my home state of Rhode Island, have laws which require firearm owners who are subject to domestic violence orders to surrender their guns. Unfortunately, there is little enforcement of these laws in many states (including my own). It is possible to help localize spread the word and encourage implementation of laws that have been passed.
- You should be familiar with the warning signs and know how to respond when they appear. Mental illness is not responsible for mass shootings, to be precise. However, it can lead to self-harm. You can also see other signs that you are at increased risk of gun violence such as drug use, dementia and online threats. These risks must be recognized and addressed. Some states have so-called “red flag laws” allowing the removal of firearms from some risky individuals, but public awareness remains sparse. But even in the absence of such legislation, friends and family members can remain alert to early warning signs—and know what resources exist to help, before it is too late. I and others are working on training healthcare providers and non-healthcare-providers alike on how to do this. We invite you to join us as we share this training.
- Share your experiences and learn the facts. More than 100 people die and more than 200 are injured by firearm every day across the U.S.—and the majority of these deaths are firearm suicides. Nearly all Americans know of someone who was injured by a firearm. We can de-stigmatize the epidemic by sharing stories and facts.
We each have very real opportunities to reshape the dynamics that contribute to firearm injuries—before the gun and the ammunition ever reach the hands of those prepared to misuse them.
It may feel overwhelming to think about all the ways that individual, family, community, and society needs to shift, but it’s still in our power to create change today.
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