By Steven Rothschild, MD
This week, the American Medical Association called for urgent action on a growing epidemic in the U.S. In doing so, the AMA joined several other professional societies in declaring that we can no longer continue to ignore a health problem that killed over 30,000 Americans last year (including 1,500 children) and disabled countless more. They cite strong evidence for interventions that have been consistently shown to save lives, but which are not being implemented.
What is this public health problem? AIDS? Cancer? Zika virus? No: It is gun violence.
This past weekend, all of us were horrified by the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The motivations of the gunman remain unclear, and we may never know whether this was due to homophobia, terrorism, mental illness or a combination of all three. What we do know is that 49 young people were robbed of their lives in a matter of minutes.
We also know that, here in Chicago, since the start of 2016 over five times that many people — 265 as I write this — have been killed with guns. Colleagues in the Rush emergency room tell me that so far this year they have seen more patients with gunshot wounds than ever before.
How research could help
Here at Rush, we are always seeking to find solutions for life-threatening problems. Our scientists receive funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control to study heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and most of the other major causes of death and disability. We do not, however, have federally funded researchers addressing gun violence. No one does; Congress outlawed all federal funding for firearm research in 1996, and that ban remains in place today.
To be sure, research won’t eliminate all gun violence, but we know that federally funded public health research exposed the risks of cigarette smoking (which the tobacco industry had hidden for decades), and also led to policies that dramatically reduced deaths from car accidents, sudden infant death syndrome and other conditions.
Research could help find ways to improve gun safety in the home. Research could test the best ways to prevent gun-related suicides — or to protect toddlers from accidentally firing a gun. Research could evaluate the impact of social interventions like education, jobs training, restorative justice programs, and alternatives to prison in reducing gun violence. Why would our representatives be afraid of research that might prevent gun deaths?
In 1996, the same year that the U.S. stopped research on guns, the conservative prime minister of Australia responded to a mass murder of 35 people by signing legislation restricting the private ownership of assault weapons. The Australian government also then funded independent research to monitor the impact of their new gun policies. These studies have had mixed findings, but there appears to have been a significant drop in gun-related suicides — and Australia has had no further mass murders with guns in 20 years.
Our hearts go out to the victims of Sunday’s shootings and their families. We can do more, though. Sensible public policies, a tireless commitment to supporting the health of our community, and rigorous research can help save lives in Chicago and beyond.
Steven Rothschild, MD, is a family physician and community health researcher at Rush University Medical Center. He is an associate professor with the Department of Preventive Medicine at Rush University.