Imagine that there is a disease that claims more than 30,000 lives in the United States each year. Imagine that countless more people survive this disease, and that many of them have long-lasting effects. Imagine that there are various methods for preventing the disease, but there are social, political, and other barriers to implementing these preventive measures. And then imagine that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is restricted from, or not funded for, performing research on the disease or how it can be prevented.
Unimaginable. But all this describes firearm deaths and injuries in the United States and the congressional ban on CDC performing research on gun-related morbidity and mortality.
Each year, about 33,000 people in the United States die of gunshot wounds. The US firearm-related mortality rate is more than five times higher than in Canada, 10 times higher than in Germany, and 40 times higher than in the United Kingdom. Those who survive gunshot wounds often face physical and psychological problems for the rest of their lives.
Although more scientific research is needed, we know that restricting access to firearms would reduce gun-related deaths and injuries. But for more than two decades, the CDC has been restricted from performing research on firearm-related deaths and injuries. This restriction is a result of the gun lobby’s profound influence on Congress.
The CDC performs its own research and funds much research at many academic institutions on many diseases and injuries of public health importance – from HIV/AIDS to Ebola, from influenza to hospital-acquired infections, from motor-vehicle injuries to tobacco-related diseases. Much of this research is epidemiological, examining the distribution (by time, place, person, and circumstances) and determinants (causes) of disease and injury in populations. Much of this research evaluates alternative approaches to preventing a disease or injury and minimizing its consequences by various forms of intervention.
When it comes to gun-related injuries and deaths, however, the CDC is not permitted to perform research. This is outrageous in 2016 in the richest country, which has, by far, the highest rate of gun-related deaths among industrialized countries. It is as outlandish as the American Hospital Association hypothetically preventing CDC research on hospital-acquired infections, or automobile manufacturers preventing CDC research on motor-vehicle deaths and injuries, or cigarette manufacturers preventing CDC research on tobacco-related diseases.
Gun-related deaths will not disappear if we, as a nation, continue to keep our heads in the ground.
There are many common-sense measures that could be implemented to reduce gun-related deaths and nonfatal injuries. These measures include preventing people with mental illness from acquiring guns, banning civilian access to military ordnance, and mandating trigger locks and other forms of gun safety. We are much smarter preventing unauthorized use of smart phones than we are in preventing unauthorized use of firearms. Variants of all of these and other measures are being implemented in other countries that have far-lower rates of gun-related morbidity and mortality. None of these measures represent attempts by the government to make possession of guns illegal.
A cornerstone of public health is prevention. Another cornerstone is evaluation of the effectiveness of therapeutic and preventive interventions. Much needs to be done to prevent gun-related deaths and injuries in the United States. At the same time, research needs to be done to identify populations that are especially vulnerable and to assess the effectiveness of various preventive interventions.
CDC is the nation’s prevention agency. Preventing gun-related morbidity and mortality requires the active participation of CDC. But right now politics is being given priority over public health.
Imagine that this ban can – and will – be lifted. Then take action to ensure that this happens. Imagine how many deaths and injuries can – and will – be prevented.
Featured image credit: evidence by Benedict Benedict. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.