Abcarian: Why acknowledging gun violence crisis matters

Gun Rights

Hey, cheer up: The news is not all bad.

The federal government acknowledged for the first time last week that gun violence is an urgent public health crisis.

You already knew that, of course. We all knew it. But thanks to the gun lobby’s stranglehold on our political class, it’s been nearly impossible to focus the federal government’s attention on this shameful and uniquely American problem. That’s why the “Surgeon General’s Advisory on Firearm Violence” is so encouraging.

In fed-speak, an advisory is the equivalent of sending up a flare; it is reserved for a situation that, as Surgeon General Vivek Murthy put it, requires “the nation’s immediate awareness and action.”

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About damn time.

Firearms have surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents. Almost 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides, and over the past decade, young adults have experienced what Murthy described as a “staggering increase” in gun suicide rates.

“We don’t have to continue down this path,” Murthy said in introducing the report, “and we don’t have to subject our children to the ongoing horror of firearm violence in America.”

Gun violence has so warped us that nearly three-quarters of American adults report stress about the possibility of a mass shooting, and one-third say that fear of gun violence prevents them from attending certain events. More than half of Americans have had some sort of exposure to firearm violence, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

By treating gun violence as a public health crisis and treating firearms as we do other potentially dangerous consumer products — such as cars, pesticides, cigarettes or prescription drugs — Murthy said we can reduce gun deaths, injuries and the almost incalculable indirect costs and community trauma that firearms cause.

‘Turned our back on it’

This is a revolutionary stance for a reason. In 1996, a pro-gun congressman tucked a one-sentence amendment into the budget bill: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

For the next quarter-century, that amendment basically paralyzed the CDC’s ability to study gun violence.

“We didn’t ignore firearm violence; we deliberately turned our back on it,” said Garen Wintemute, an emergency medicine physician and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis. “It’s as if we said, ‘Let’s not do research on breast cancer.’ ”

Wintemute, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association who grew up around guns, is a pioneer in the field of gun violence prevention and has relentlessly advocated interventions that have been shown to work.

“We have good evidence that community-based and hospital-based violence interruption programs work,” he told me last week. “We have reasonable evidence that extreme risk protection orders work — like domestic violence restraining orders and red flag laws.”

Wintemute said the Biden administration has done a “superb” job of trying to rein in gun violence.

In 2022, the administration issued a rule regulating ghost guns, untraceable firearms assembled from separately acquired parts or kits and frequently used in crimes. The rule requires that such parts carry serial numbers and be sold only by licensed dealers.

In April, the Justice Department finalized rules to close the gaping “gun show loophole,” which has allowed firearms to be sold at gun shows and online without background checks.

“It’s not that Americans are more violent than other people,” Wintemute said. “It’s that we have unique access to a technology that changes the outcome of violence.”

Robin Abcarian is an opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times.

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