Public health crisis linked to gun violence is ‘a wake-up call,’ experts say

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In a recent advisory, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said gun violence in the United States is a public health crisis that requires immediate national awareness and action.

As of 2020, firearm injuries have been the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the United States, ahead of motor vehicle crashes, cancer, overdoses and poisonings, according to the advisory. In 2022, a total of 48,204 people died from firearm injuries, including suicides, homicides and accidental deaths.

The Firearm Violence Advisory cited the work of several Northwestern professors, and Northwestern Now spoke with three of them about the impact of gun violence and potential solutions.

Community Violence Intervention

“This report is another wake-up call for solutions to address the heavy toll that gun violence continues to take on Americans each year,” said Andrew Papachristos, whose research on secondary traumatic stress among community violence responders in Chicago was cited in the advisory.

“Our research shows a way forward. It starts with investing in street workers, who use their lived experiences of gun violence to help break the cycle of violence.”

“These unarmed workers work in community violence intervention (CVI) programs in communities that experience the most violence. In one CVI program in Chicago, we saw double-digit declines in violence-related arrests. Participants stopped carrying guns, fighting, and robbing or shooting people, which calmed communities and saved lives.”

However, high levels of trauma and violence at work have a “huge impact” on outreach workers, Papachristos said.

“One of our studies found that more outreach workers have been shot in the line of duty (12%) than police officers (1%). Another study found that 94% of outreach workers reported signs of secondary traumatic stress. So, to end this public health crisis, we must also care for and invest in the development of these essential frontline workers, as well as build community-focused violence prevention infrastructure to support them.”

Papachristos is also director of the Institute for Policy Research, the John G. Searle Professor of Sociology, and director of the Center for Neighborhood Engaged Research and Science.

Safe storage of firearms

“We have measures that work, we need to implement them and study them,” said Rinad Beidas, whose research on the long-term consequences of youth exposure to gunshot wounds was cited in the opinion. The report stresses the need for implementation research to improve the effectiveness of prevention strategies.

Beidas has published work on implementing a safe gun storage program through pediatrician visits and will conduct a larger trial of the program. “This is an apolitical, relatively inexpensive, and scalable approach to saving lives.”

Beidas is chair of the Department of Medical Social Sciences and the Ralph Seal Paffenbarger Professor of Implementation in Medical Social Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine.

Solving complex problems

“While our nation’s youth and young adults are disproportionately impacted by firearm deaths and nonfatal firearm injuries on a daily basis, our research shows that youth who have ever been involved in the juvenile justice system have firearm death rates up to 23 times higher than the general population,” said Linda Teplin, whose research on criminal victimization among adults with serious mental illness was cited in the opinion.

Teplin is vice chair for research and the Owen L. Coon Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Feinberg. She is also the principal investigator of the Northwestern Juvenile Project, the first large-scale longitudinal study of the mental health needs and outcomes of juvenile offenders after incarceration.

“Reducing gun violence requires a creative, multidisciplinary approach that involves legal and health professionals, street workers, and public health researchers. People who have been shot are more likely to be re-injured or killed. Therefore, hospital emergency departments are ideal settings to implement violence prevention interventions.

“Poverty also breeds violence. We must address the complex issues that lead to urban decay, such as inadequate housing, unemployment and poor infrastructure.

“The public is very concerned about mass shootings, but they represent less than 4 percent of all gun deaths. We need to focus on the other 96 percent of everyday violence that disproportionately affects poor urban youth, particularly people of color.”

Provided by Northwestern University

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