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Jollon: Gun violence – a public health issue

A public health issue

According to the Colorado Health Information Dataset, 781 people died from gunshot wounds in Colorado in 2016, more than died from motor vehicle accidents. Of those killed with guns, 605 died by suicide. In La Plata County during the same time period, all eight firearm deaths were by suicide.

This data indicate that further research into suicide prevention efforts and promotion of gun safety measures is needed in our state and region. San Juan Basin Public Health facilitates suicide prevention efforts that are led by invested community partners through our State Innovation Model grant funding.

Workgroup members in this community-based, collective impact model may choose to work on gun safety measures that make sense for our community. SJBPH also participates in the statewide Gun Shop Project; a program and research project that connects firearm owners, gun shop and range owners and public health departments to work together to promote safe gun storage and facilitate difficult conversations about how to talk to friends and family about storing guns during times of stress or crisis to prevent suicide attempts.

Gun-related deaths and injuries are a public health issue because it impacts both the quality and length of lives across the country. When a common item causes preventable injuries or deaths, research and funding on improving safety often follow. For example, since 1925, there has been a 90 percent decrease in motor vehicle deaths because of a public health response; research suggested using evidence-based prevention tactics such as graduated licenses, speed limits, safer road design and seat belts.

A public health approach to reducing gun violence includes: researching gun-related deaths and injuries, identifying risk factors associated with gun violence, identifying protective factors associated with reducing gun violence, then developing, implementing and evaluating communitywide interventions designed to reduce risk factors and increase resilience.

Without reliable data on the causes and effects of gun violence, public health entities cannot create evidence-based prevention strategies to reduce gun violence in our communities. Gun violence may have different root causes, as well as varied interventions and prevention techniques, across regions and populations. Allowing public health entities to research and implement violence prevention programs at the state and local levels may therefore result in more tailored and effective programming, designed with community input and participation.

Unfortunately, the research needed to guide the direction of future policies to reduce gun deaths and injuries does not exist. In 1996, the Dickey Amendment was introduced into the federal spending bill; it mandated that “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.”

While not an explicit ban on the CDC’s research on gun violence, the amendment resulted in an immediate reduction of funding for research on gun-related deaths and injuries and little to no subsequent public health research. Organizations such as the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, and, most recently, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have advocated for removing this prohibition on research funding.

Historically, public health research and recommendations have led to the creation of programs to address a wide variety of issues, including motor vehicle safety, tobacco use, clean water standards, immunizations and nutrition. An evidence-based, research-informed approach to reducing gun violence in our communities is possible only if public health professionals are funded to research the root causes of violence, effective interventions, and prevention strategies.

If you would like more information about SJBPH suicide prevention efforts in La Plata County, please contact Dr. Laura Warner, director of Health Promotion, at lwarner@sjbpublichealth.org. For more information about the Gun Shop Project or about suicide prevention efforts in Archuleta County, please contact Kristin D. Pulatie, director of Assessment and Planning, at kpulatie@sjbpublichealth.org.

Liane Jollon is executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health. Reach her at ljollon@sjbpublichealth.org.

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