Surgeon General declares gun violence a public health crisis

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Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is declaring firearm violence in the U.S. a public health crisis, not only for the tens of thousands who die from gun violence each year but also due to far-reaching trauma that impacts the wider population.

In his advisory, the first time a Surgeon General has declared a public health advisory on gun violence, Murthy highlights recent statistics on gun violence in the U.S. which show a consistent rise in deaths due to firearm-related injuries.

“In 2022, 48,204 total people died from firearm‑related injuries, including suicides, homicides, and unintentional deaths,” the advisory stated. “This is over 8,000 more lives lost than in 2019 and over 16,000 more lives lost than in 2010.”

According to Murthy, it’s not just firearm deaths, which reached a record high in 2021, that have created a crisis, but also the “major reverberations” that stem from them.

“We have for every one person who loses their life to gun violence, we have two individuals who survive that are injured. We have people who witness the impact of these incidences, these episodes of violence, and then suffer often the mental health consequences in the form of depression, anxiety and PTSD,” Murthy told The Hill.

The results of a national survey included in the advisory show that 54 percent of adults have personally experienced or have a family member who’s experienced a firearm-related incident. Roughly a fifth of those surveyed have been threatened by a firearm and the same percentage of respondents say they have a family member who’s died by a firearm.

Murthy noted how gun violence disproportionately affects young people and children.

“Gun violence is now the leading cause of death among kids. That was not true five years ago, it was not true 10 years ago, it is true now. And that in my mind should be alarming to all of us,” he said.

The report noted that between 2012 and 2022, children and young people experienced a “staggering” jump in firearm-related suicides: 43 percent among people aged between 25 and 24; 45 percent among those between 15 and 24-years-old; and 68 percent among children aged between 10 and 14.

These metrics also speak to the larger issue of a youth mental health crisis.

“There has been a disproportionate increase in firearm violence, particularly suicide among younger population,” Murthy said. “This, I think, is consistent with an issue that we started talking about in the very first year of my term in 2021, which is a broader youth mental health crisis that we’re experiencing right now in our country.”

The purpose of the Surgeon General’s advisory is to raise awareness and to put forward broad proposals for Congress to consider in future legislation addressing gun violence.

Murthy’s advisory proposes expanding universal background checks on gun purchases to also apply to private sales and gifted firearms; banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines for civilian use; and treating firearms like consumer products by requiring regulations regarding their safety and warning labels detailing their risk.

“The public health approaches to cigarette smoking and motor vehicle crashes achieved success through changes to policies, systems, and environments such as evidence-informed laws (e.g. age-minimums for tobacco purchases, driver’s licenses), evidence-driven changes in products themselves (e.g. air bags, seat belts), and evidence-driven public health education campaigns,” the advisory read.

While Democrats have largely supported the types of reforms recommended in Murthy’s advisory, they have been roundly rejected by Republicans in Congress. And the conservative Supreme Court earlier this month set back efforts to combat gun violence when it rejected a Trump-era ban on bump stocks, devices used to make semi-automatic guns fire rapidly.

The advisory acknowledged the well-established disparity in gun violence between the U.S. and other high-income countries like Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K. In 2019, the U.S. experienced 36.4 deaths per 1 million among children and adolescents aged between one and 19. This was nearly six times that of the second-highest OECD country, Canada, at 6.2 deaths per 1 million people.

“And so we are very distant outlier and not in a positive way. But I would like to see us turn that around, make the investments we need to make in addressing gun violence,” Murthy said.

“I believe when we’re at our best as a country, we can actually lead globally on health issues. It’s something that we did with HIV, which was a profound challenge in America and across the world,” he added.

“I would like to actually demonstrate similar leadership when it comes to addressing gun violence.”

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