Senate Considers Public Health Strategy to Control Rising Gun Violence

November 28, 2023 by Tom Ramstack
Senate Considers Public Health Strategy to Control Rising Gun Violence
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

WASHINGTON — Perplexing problems of gun violence returned to a Senate hearing Tuesday, this time with a proposal for treating it as a public health crisis rather than purely a law enforcement issue.

A near record surge in violence has resulted in more than 38,000 Americans killed by guns so far this year, according to Senate Judiciary Committee figures.

“Guns are the number one cause of death among America’s children and teenagers,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Judiciary Committee’s chairman.

He brought together health care professionals to discuss whether strategies they use to control epidemics could help prevent gun deaths and injuries. Durbin described it as a “community violence intervention” approach.

Similar to a disease outbreak, the strategy would focus on collecting data on the extent of the problem, train professionals to deal with it, collaborate with affected communities and pinpoint their efforts to flashpoints of violence.

“We used the same public health approach to cut traffic fatalities,” Durbin said.

He was referring to legislation in the late 1960s and early 1970s that required automobile seat belts, air bags and crumple zones to protect passengers. Injury rates fell after the federal mandates were imposed.

Durbin acknowledged that gun violence might be a more daunting problem, saying, “This debate’s been going on as long as I’ve been in Congress.” He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1982.

Franklin N. Cosey-Gay advocated for an expanded version of the University of Chicago Medicine’s Violence Recovery Program, which he directs.

The program helps victims of violence and their families recover from traumatic injuries with an emphasis on mental health treatment. It includes crisis intervention, “psychological first aid,” re-injury risk assessment and community-based service provider referrals.

Unlike emergency care that treats only wounds, the Violence Recovery Program emphasizes “intensive, long-term case management,” Cosey-Gay said.

About 45% of gun injury victims nationwide return to hospitals for treatment from other acts of violence within five years, according to Senate Judiciary Committee statistics.

For injured persons treated through the Violence Recovery Program, their return for medical treatment after violent reinjury is only 2%, Cosey-Gay said.

Megan L. Ranney, dean at Yale School of Public Health, suggested prompt government action to combat gun violence while she cited U.S. Health Department figures saying the economic cost is now more than $1 billion a year.

There’s also the mental health cost, she said.

“We are turning into a nation of traumatized survivors,” Ranney said.

Some Republicans and their witnesses said keeping guns out of the hands of criminals might be a better solution than treating the after-effects of the violence.

“A firearm in the hands of a law-abiding citizen is not a threat to public safety,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Amy Swearer, a legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said lapses in enforcing gun control laws are a significant contributor to the violence. The enforcement should focus more heavily on repeat offenders, she said.

Most gun crimes are committed “by a small subset of repeat offenders who already are prohibited from owning guns,” Swearer said.

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