The increase in firearm homicides during the pandemic underlines the need for a broader approach that treats gun violence as a community health challenge, according to a paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
That includes focusing on the roots of violence, particularly the “stark” racial and economic disparities that victimize America’s poorest communities, wrote the paper’s author, Dr. Garen Wintemute of the University of California-Davis Department of Emergency Medicine.
A study released by the Council on Criminal Justice last month found that homicides and aggravated assaults in 27 cities rose significantly in late May and June.
Noting that black Americans are disproportionately victimized by firearms, Dr. Wintemute wrote that gun prevention measures needed to be linked to efforts to end disparities in community health.
“For the first time, violence is seen as a health problem that affects everyone, and that perception is increasing,’ he wrote in the Annals, a publication of the American College of Physicians.
“There is a growing demand for action, based on sound scientific evidence, to save lives and restore communities to health.”
The racial disparities in the populations most affected by COVID-19 mirrored the disparities in gun victims, he added.
Homicide rates for adolescents and young adult men were 81.7 per 100,000 for blacks, 16.2 per 100,000 for Hispanics, and 5.4 per 100,000 for whites, according to 2018 figures cited in the paper. Some 90 percent of the deaths involved firearms.
When it comes to treating the impact of gun violence, “the whole community is our patient,” Dr. Wintemute wrote.
Americans purchased more than two million firearms in the four months since the outbreak of COVID-19, coinciding with an 8 percent increase in gun violence during the same period, according to an earlier study by the UC Davis Violence Prevention Program.
The rise in gun homicides puts healthcare professionals on the front lines of violence prevention efforts, since the communities most at risk also disproportionately experience adverse social and economic conditions, Dr. Wintemute wrote.
“Many argue (as I do) that there is also structural violence, where political or economic power stands in for physical force and the adverse outcomes are disparities in health [and] life expectancy,” he added.
“Violence and disparity travel together along all the other axes on which disparities exist.”
The current focus on addressing systemic racism places health care professionals in a special role when it comes to preventing gun violence, according to Dr. Wintemute.
In addition to supporting restrictions on access to firearms for persons convicted of violent crimes or crimes involving alcohol misuse, health workers should conduct studies on the “socioeconomic factors associated with the increased risk for violence [and] the consequences of victimization,” he added.
Observing that “health professionals are not on-the-sidelines people,” Dr. Wintemute said their broader understanding of the roots of gun violence was critical to finding solutions that Americans could support, regardless of their ideology.
“We are leaders whose credibility arises from our commitment to serve,” he wrote.
“How Americans talk about violence shapes how they think about it, and that determines what they do about it.”
Read the full paper here.