Gun Violence: A Public Health Issue

November 27, 2019

The College of Community Health Sciences recently hosted two lectures focused on gun violence, the criminal justice system and the role of health care providers that featured three speakers from New Orleans, a city with one of the highest rates of gun violence in the United States. The speakers each brought unique perspectives on the topic to educate medical students, residents and faculty about the impact violent crime has on the healthcare system and the role health care providers can have in criminal justice reform. Gun Violence speakers

Dr. Peter Scharf, adjunct professor of public health and behavioral and community health at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center New Orleans, discussed the cost of gun violence on the healthcare system. Scharf said each death from gun violence costs the system $1 million, and each hospitalized injury from a gunshot wound can reach half a million dollars. The lifelong costs of those injuries may exceed $6 million, according to Scharf.

Scharf said how we think about gun violence needs to change. Gun violence kills, on average, 36,383 Americans a year through suicide, homicide or accident, or roughly 1 in every 315 people according to the CDC and WISQARS Fatal Injury Reports. The Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System, a product of the CDC, is an interactive, online database that provides fatal and nonfatal injury, violent death, and cost of injury data from a variety of trusted sources.

There are an additional 100,120 injuries that are a result of firearms use including self-harm, assault and accidents. Scharf said researchers and physicians need to start thinking of gun violence as a public health issue, not only a criminal justice issue.

“It’s hard to pinpoint causation on issues like this, but we know there are a lot of correlations, such as illiteracy, race, poverty and drug culture,” Scharf said. “More research is needed.”

Eddie Compass, former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, added to the discussion by detailing some of the experiences he learned in 40 years in law enforcement. The key to making a difference in a community is to listen to residents’ concerns and take action to earn their trust. Only then, with community support, can real change be made.

Compass encouraged the medical students and residents to remember that their patients’ life experiences will often differ greatly from their own. It is important to listen and give credence to their concerns and knowledge of their own needs and health.

“People from areas like the (housing) projects may not be well educated for one reason or another,” Compass said. “But they are not dumb. Don’t confuse the two.”

Ameer Baraka, the third speaker, brought his personal perspective as a New Orleans born juvenile delinquent who found self-rehabilitation in prison. The actor and activist spoke about how gun violence was a part of his everyday life. His autobiography, “The Life I Chose – The Streets Lied to Me,” chronicles his transformation from a violent and illiterate juvenile delinquent to a celebrated author, film maker, actor, mentor and motivational speaker.

Baraka said the most important thing a physician can do for a young person in a position similar to his is give them, “the spark of greatness.” He said these young people often don’t hear they have potential to do anything, and a small seed of positivity can grow for them. Additionally, he encouraged physicians and social workers to look for signs of dyslexia in their patients, which often goes undiagnosed in African American communities and lower-income school districts.

Overcoming his dyslexia and learning to read were key factors that allowed him to educate himself on better ways to live, Baraka said.

“Poverty is not the real issue, it’s the mindset and way of thinking that accompanies poverty that causes problems,” Baraka said. “I was told and knew it would be hard to have a life in a conventional way, so I found my ghetto heroes – the (drug) dealers in my neighborhood.”

New Orleans has ranked in the top five highest gun violence rates in the U.S. for the last decade these rates include homicide, suicide or unintentional shooting. Louisiana ranked second in the nation according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and WISQARS Fatal Injury Reports from 2008-2017.

Alabama had the third highest rate of gun deaths nationwide during the last five years. Between 2008 and 2017, gun deaths from suicide, homicide and accidents increased by 32% in Alabama, according to the CDC and WISQARS Fatal Injury Reports. Physicians in Alabama are likely to encounter gunshot wounds in their careers and must be prepared to treat not only the injury itself but endeavor to avert their patients from being shot again, said Scharf.

“We need more evidence-based research,” Scharf said.

Scarf said physicians and the public need to start treating gun violence like diabetes or heart disease using prevention, awareness and education.