While Connecticut continues to heal in the wake of the shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, it is imperative for us to find the most effective ways to reduce deaths and injuries from gun violence.
As physicians, my colleagues and I work on the front lines and witness the impact of gun violence firsthand. These experiences from physicians provide insight into how to make a difference. With them we can use the same evidence-based approach that has helped us ameliorate chronic health problems.
The other day in my office, for example, I saw two patients. One patient has been using a wheelchair for several years, the result of a gunshot to the back while walking on the streets of a nearby Connecticut city. Every day he struggles with pain, paralysis, skin ulcers and getting around in his wheelchair. Depression is a constant challenge.
On the same day, I had another patient whom I follow for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. In another era, this man might have already have had a heart attack. However, researchers and physicians applied a public health approach and developed multiple strategies to reduce deaths from heart disease.
How has the public health approach helped reduce the risk of dying from a heart attack?
Scientists and physicians performed research to find the most effective ways to help. Medications and better treatments of hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol have made a difference. Robust public education campaigns were initiated to help people identify the signs of heart attacks and when to go to the emergency room. Many airports and schools now have defibrillators to help in emergency situations. Cigarette smoking has significantly declined as a result of increased education, greater availability of quitting aids such as nicotine patches, and cultural changes that address the inappropriateness of exposing others to secondhand smoke.
What if we applied an evidence-based approach and rigorous public health campaign to reducing gun violence, as originally suggested by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, more than a decade ago?
Adequately funded, independent research would inform decision makers and physicians about what approaches most effectively reduce and prevent violent interactions involving firearms. We would ensure that every person who purchases a gun receives education about how to safely use and store the gun, particularly if there were children in the home.
In addition to more available research about violence prevention strategies, it is only common sense to have a universal background check system with effective record-keeping for all purchasers of a firearm from any seller. Background checks are desired by a strong majority of Connecticut residents to keep weapons out of the hands of felons, the severely mentally ill and those with a history of domestic violence.
Physicians play a critical role by assessing risky situations in the home, just as we screen for drug and alcohol use and domestic violence, and we can reinforce the importance of safe firearm storage. Physicians must be able to ask about gun safety and educate patients on basic health precautions, whether or not the patient owns a firearm.
Similar coordinated and multidimensional public health responses have saved lives from poisonings and car accidents. It is time to expand this approach and engage the health care community. This is yet another area where the preventive approach can make a huge difference.
Thirty thousand Americans die each year from gun-related violence. The effect on families and communities reaches even further. With deep condolences to all victims of gun violence, this American tragedy must be addressed, and a public health approach can help.
Julie Rosenbaum, M.D., practices in Waterbur, is a member of the steering committee of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Physicians Alliance and an associate professor at the Yale University School of Medicine.