While COVID-19 has dominated our public health discussions for the past year, we have failed to adequately address another deadly epidemic.
This epidemic affects more than 300 people in the United States every day and has a death rate of about 30%. It claims the lives of more than 3,000 American children and teens every year.
This uniquely American epidemic is one of gun violence.
And like any public health crisis, there is no easy fix. Consider cancer. Although we sometimes call this constellation of diseases a monolith, there are of course many different cancers, each with its own presentation, patient populations at risk, and forms of prevention.
And while there is no single intervention that will uniformly reduce all morbidity and mortality from cancer, we have nonetheless worked over the past century and did some work since then on ways to screen for cancer, treat reduce cancer. to shape.
Likewise, there are many forms of gun violence. And while mass shootings are getting most of the attention, incidents like these are in fact responsible for a small portion of firearm deaths in the United States. More common are deaths from firearms and injuries from suicide, willful murder, domestic violence, theft and assault, and death from accident.
And like cancer, different forms of gun violence predominate in different at-risk populations, present in different ways and requiring unique forms of prevention. In other words, the same measures that prevent gun violence in the form of suicide are not necessarily the same measures that prevent gun violence in the form of police violence. They are different diseases under the same diagnostic umbrella.
No measure, legislative or otherwise, will mitigate all forms of gun violence, any more than an annual colonoscopy will prevent all cancer-related deaths. Anyone who claims that a certain strategy is not a panacea and is therefore not worthwhile is missing the point.
For example, no one would suggest that seat belts would eliminate all motor vehicle fatalities. However, seat belts – coupled with airbags, DUI laws, improved traffic lights, windshield safety glass, and child car seats – are measures that together have contributed to a fivefold increase in road fatalities since Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966.
We know how to do this. We’ve done it before.
And now we can do it again.
Last week, President Biden presented a series of modest measures to contain the gun violence epidemic ravaging our country. The action came about three weeks after the horrific March 16 shootings in the Atlanta area that killed eight victims. Six of the murders were Asian women.
When Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visited Atlanta a few days after the shooting, I was one of the local Asian-American leaders who met them. Many of us have linked this heinous crime to the rise in anti-Asian violence in the United States against the Asian community. The president assured us that more resources would be devoted to the issue of discrimination and violence against the Asian-American Pacific Islander community – and that he would act decisively to reduce the threat of gun violence against us.
The executive actions Biden has taken include increasing funding for community violence intervention programs, ordering the Department of Justice to stop the unregulated sale of ‘ghost weapon’ kits that can be made from parts purchased online , and encouraging states to pass “red flag” laws. allowing family members or law enforcement officials to request a state court to temporarily remove firearms from anyone who could pose a danger to themselves or others.
The president has acknowledged that these incremental solutions are nowhere near enough and admits, “This is just the beginning. … We have a lot of work to do. “Larger-scale measures, such as the passage of HR 8, which would require background checks to extend to private arms sales and transfers, would require the support of Congress.
Gun violence is a complicated and persistent epidemic. But we once considered cancer untreatable, and most of the early attempts to treat it were minor, palliative, and only marginally effective against what felt like an incurable problem. The key is that scientists and doctors haven’t stopped there.
When dealing with a public health crisis on the scale of US gun violence, no measure is too modest.
Speaking at the funeral of Xiaojie Tan – who died in the March 16 shootings – her ex-husband, Mike Webb, said her family in China felt that America, with its culture of fetishism about gun possession over human security, just wasn’t was safe. . “What example are we setting for the rest of the world?” he complained. “Do our flags always have to fly at half mast?”
In the aftermath of the Atlanta tragedy, the president and vice president pledged to take bold action. And sometimes the boldest move, especially when fighting a seemingly endless epidemic, is simply to understand that effective interventions involve taking one small step at a time.
Michelle Au is an anesthetist on the Atlanta subway and a state senator in Georgia.