If you are an American man, you will probably die at least two years and two months earlier than men in other high-income countries. Men in Australia and Iceland live into their 80s. American men, on average, die at 76.
What kills them sooner? It’s mostly a combination of three things. We can talk about two of them, car crashes and drug overdoses, but it’s difficult to discuss the third, biggest contributor: guns.
Gun violence cuts over five months off American men’s life expectancy, say National Center for Health Statistics researchers.
If the biggest contributor were cancer, we would work to address it. But out of fear of offending gun rights advocates, we don’t talk about gun violence as a public health threat. That silence is killing thousands.
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Some cities are starting to treat gun violence like an illness. When Wilmington, Delaware, had a 45 percent increase in shootings over two years, local officials called in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disease detectives.
Those investigators usually study and stop epidemics of diseases or limit a natural disaster’s health effects. But in Wilmington, they used the same tools they employ to curb infections to understand the rising gun violence. That helped city officials understand who is most at risk of becoming a gun violence victim and when to intervene to prevent shooting deaths.
You might think the CDC is banned from studying gun violence. That’s a common misconception. It is true that a 1996 Congressional bill cut $2.6 million from the CDC budget, the amount the agency spent on gun research the previous year. A 1996 amendment added to a Congressional bill said “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.”
Since the not-quite-a-ban amendment, the CDC has been afraid to study gun violence. Critics say the CDC investigation of the Delaware gun violence epidemic skirted the real issues, with disease detectives afraid to study how people acquired guns and investigate if policies to limit gun access would slow the epidemic.
The interjection of gun politics in health is nowhere more apparent than in Florida. Gun rights activists there supported a 2011 law that makes it illegal for a doctor to “ask questions concerning the ownership of a firearm” during a consultation.
They say the law protects patient privacy, but laws already protect patient privacy. The Firearm Owner’s Privacy Act stops doctors from asking about gun ownership and bans pediatricians from asking parents how guns are stored in the home.
Doctors charged with ensuring kids are safe can lose their licenses for asking if parents own a gun safe and know how to store guns safely. (Almost 1.7 million American children live in homes where guns are stored loaded or are not locked away, says the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.)
When a Florida judge issued an injunction against the Florida law in 2012, the court of appeals reversed it, saying, “The practice of good medicine does not require interrogation about irrelevant, private matters.”
Guns are a relevant, public health threat and good medicine requires honest discussions about everything from eating habits to gun ownership. By talking about deaths from driving, we’ve made strides in road safety through seat belts and speed limits. We could make gun ownership safer, too.
But it’s hard to treat an illness if you won’t discuss it.
A Dallas Morning News staff writer, Seema Yasmin is also a professor of public health at the University of Texas at Dallas.