Responsible Gun Laws Are A Public Health Necessity
On Thursday night, President Obama took the podium in the West Wing and addressed the nation in the wake of yet another mass shooting. In his speech, the visibly frustrated and upset president made a forceful call for action on guns, rather than just words of condolence. We echo his passionate call for responsible gun laws as a matter of public health.
According to the Massachusetts-based group Stop Handgun Violence, 87,423 Americans have been killed by gun violence since the tragedy at Sandy Hook in 2012. According to press reports, there have been 294 mass shooting so far this year. Those figures are staggering and profoundly sad, and a clear indicator that gun violence is a significant public health concern. The victims of these tragic events are often young people at the very beginning of their lives. There is not any one solution to the problem of gun violence, but there are certain actions we can take that will help.
The APA supports common sense measures, such as background checks and waiting periods before gun purchases, closing the gun show loopholes, product safety regulation, safe storage requirements, and gun-free college campuses and hospitals. As physicians, we have the opportunity to educate our patients about the risks of keeping guns in the home particularly in the presence of children, adolescents, people with dementia, people with mental illnesses, including substance use disorders, who are at risk of harming themselves or others, and people who abuse children or partners. Currently, a number of states prevent physicians from asking questions about guns. This needs to be changed.
Temporary firearm restraining orders may also be a way to protect potential victims of these tragedies. A policy recently enacted in California, the Gun Violence Restraining Order, or GVRO, would seem to hold enormous promise. The GVRO is based on the same principle as a domestic violence restraining order. It would allow family members and/or law enforcement to go before a judge and request that guns be temporarily removed from an individual who is likely to be dangerous toward himself and/or others (while allowing for due process). Notably, a GVRO does not rely solely on mental illness as a marker for violence. As research shows, the overwhelming majority of individuals with mental illness will never be violent toward others (the risk of self-harm is far greater). Stronger indicators of risk include a history of violent behavior, domestic violence and drug or alcohol abuse. We urge states to develop new procedures for the temporary removal of access to guns during periods of elevated risk.
We also believe in a fair and reasonable process for the restoration of access to firearms after a suitable waiting period. This restoration should only occur following a thorough, individualized assessment of risk. Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals can work with law enforcement and judges to identify who should have their access to guns restricted, and when and if they should have that access restored.
As the president said in his address, our hopes and prayers will not be enough to stem the tide of gun violence in our country. We need decisive action in favor of responsible gun regulation. Until then, gun violence remains a significant threat to America’s public health, and as physicians, we have a vital role in advocating for change.