A Tale of Two Crises
This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alerted us that we should not eat romaine lettuce, the culprit in an E. coli outbreak that has sickened numerous people across the country. As of this writing, there are no known deaths associated with the outbreak and it is likely that the government agencies’ swift and effective messaging prevented scores of additional people from becoming ill.
Sadly, Americans have not responded with similar urgency to a far different public health emergency, one that kills nearly 100 people per day and injures over twice as many. In the time that we have spent dutifully purging our refrigerators and grocery store aisles of contaminated produce, hundreds of our fellow countrymen and women have become victims and survivors of gun violence. As our nation reels from recent massacres at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it is important to remember that the vast majority of gun deaths and injuries are not the result of high profile mass shootings, but are due to self inflicted gun shot wounds and routine “everyday” shootings, many of which are acts of domestic violence.
American gun violence is a public health crisis. As a nation that purports to value human dignity and the universal right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, we must do a better job of addressing this shameful epidemic.
Like the gastrointestinal illness caused by E. coli, deaths and injuries from guns are preventable. There are sensible precautions that we can take immediately to reduce the daily bloodshed. Unlike our uncompromising approach to lettuce disposal, these precautions do not necessitate the universal relinquishment of all firearms. We can mitigate the risks of guns in our communities without infringing upon the rights of conscientious gun owners. Additionally, we can take these steps while we simultaneously demand that our elected officials enact critical legislative reforms such as “red flag laws” and universal background checks. We do not have to wait for new laws before we can start saving lives.
Imagine if every news outlet across America broadcast public service announcements educating the public about gun safety! What if we mounted a relentless public health campaign reminding Americans that children, emotionally distraught individuals, substance abusers and perpetrators of domestic violence should never have access to guns? What if we saturated the highways with gun safety billboards and inundated the American public with clever ads and sticky jingles hammering home the incontrovertible fact that safe storage saves lives?
Imagine the suffering that could be avoided if an acutely suicidal teen could not access her family’s handgun in a moment of deep despair. Consider the devastation that would be prevented if a single curious toddler could not find or fire his parent’s unsecured gun that he mistook for a toy. Dare to imagine the possibilities if we effectively harnessed the power of mass messaging to prevent gun violence with the same urgency with which we have communicated the dangers of contaminated lettuce!
This week’s well-publicized alert demonstrated that when there is an American will to prevent suffering and death, there is a way. No matter what side of the political aisle we may claim or how we choose to interpret the Second Amendment, all of us must agree that eliminating preventable gun carnage is a shared and urgent goal. If the CDC and FDA can elicit immediate behavioral change on a national scale in response to an E. coli outbreak, surely we can do the same in response to our national gun violence emergency.
PRINCIPLES OF SAFE STORAGE:
If there are guns in the home, they should be kept unloaded and secured with a properly fitted gunlock. All guns must be placed in a locked safe or container with ammunition locked and stored separately; vulnerable individuals should never have access to the keys or combinations. If there are high-risk individuals in the home such as children, domestic abusers, perpetrators of violence, substance abusers, or anyone experiencing an emotional crisis, suicidal thoughts, or cognitive decline, the safest option is an environment completely free from firearms.
Sonya Lewis, MD, MPH is a psychiatrist and mother of two who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She serves on the executive committee of Physicians for the Prevention of Gun Violence.