Gun violence declared a public health emergency in the US amid outbreak of mass shootings

Gun Rights

United States Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy has declared gun violence a public health emergency, as the country continues to grapple with a spate of mass shootings.

The nation’s top doctor made the declaration in an advisory called Firearm Violence: A Public Health Crisis in America, issued on Tuesday, local time.

It came after the second straight weekend of an outbreak of shootings across the country, which left dozens of people dead or wounded.

“People want to be able to walk through their neighbourhoods and be safe,” Dr Murthy told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

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“America should be a place where all of us can go to school, go to work, go to the supermarket, go to our house of worship, without having to worry that that’s going to put our life at risk.”

The surgeon-general said the fast-growing number of injuries and deaths involving firearms in the country warranted the declaration of gun violence as a public health crisis.

To drive down gun-related deaths, he called on the US government to ban automatic rifles, introduce universal background checks for purchasing guns, regulate the industry, pass laws that would restrict their use in public spaces and penalise people who failed to safely store their weapons.

None of those suggestions can be implemented nationwide without legislation passed by Congress, which typically recoils at gun control measures.

Some state legislatures, however, have enacted or may consider some of the surgeon-general’s proposals.

Dr Murthy said there was “broad agreement” of gun violence being a problem, citing a poll last year that found most Americans worried at least sometimes that a loved one might be injured by a firearm.

In 2022 alone, more than 48,000 Americans died from gun injuries.

There have already been 4,138 deaths linked to gun violence across the United States in 2024, according to independent research organisation the Gun Violence Archive (GVA).

Taking gun violence ‘out of politics’

The advisory has been welcomed by health professionals, however, it promises to incense the gun lobby and Republican politicians, most of whom had opposed the surgeon general’s confirmation to the job over his view on gun violence.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) promptly labelled Tuesday’s declaration the Democrats’ “war on law-abiding gun owners”.

Dr Murthy has long been an advocate for gun control, but became more subdued on the issue after almost having his confirmation as surgeon-general derailed by the NRA and Republicans in 2014 over his views on firearms.

He ended up promising the Senate that he did “not intend to use my office as surgeon-general as a bully pulpit on gun control.”

A person wearing a grey sweatshirt with the words 1 Kid greater than all the guns

Communities have been pleading for new gun control measures ahead of the start of the 2024 legislative session months in the US.(Reuters: Seth Herald)

Then-president Donald Trump dismissed him in 2017, but President Joe Biden nominated him again for the position in 2021.

Dr Murthy has published warnings about troubling health trends in American life, including loneliness and social media use.

A 1964 surgeon-general’s report that raised awareness about the dangers of smoking is largely credited with reducing tobacco use and precipitating regulations on the industry.

Dr Murthy is confident the same can be achieved with gun violence, arguing it is time to take the issue “out of the realm of politics and put it in the realm of public health”.

Child gun deaths in the US the highest globally

Gun reform in the US has been at the forefront of public discourse for decades, but has only begun to make incremental progress in recent years.

In 2022, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which enhanced background checks for firearms.

A White House report obtained by The Associated Press says more thorough background checks have stopped roughly 800 sales of firearms to people under age 21.

Additionally, more than 500 people, including some linked to transnational cartels and organised crime rings, have been charged with gun trafficking and other crimes under the landmark gun safety legislation.

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Research gathered by Dr Murthy shows children and younger Americans bear the brunt of gun violence.

Suicide by gun rates have increased by nearly 70 per cent for those between the ages of 10 and 14, and children in the US are far more likely to die from gun wounds than children in other countries.

Even when children are not direct victims of a gun shooting, they may suffer from mental health blowback of gun violence, the report says.

About half of teens in the US worry about a school shooting, and in areas that have been exposed to a fatal shooting at a school, youth antidepressant use jumps by more than 20 per cent.

In addition to new regulations, Dr Murthy calls for an increase in gun violence research and for the health system to promote and educate patients about gun safety and proper storage during doctor consultations.

AP

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