Are Firearms A Public Health Threat?

By Sayantika Mandal, USF News Posted Tue, 02/20/2018 - 08:53

Including last week's shooting in Parkland, Florida, there have already been 18 school shootings across the country in 2018 and we're just 50 days in. That's made USF's Erin Grinshteyn — who researches firearm deaths and is from the same Florida county where the recent mass shooting took place — a busy and fraught person. CNN, the Washington Post, and other media outlets have quoted the assistant professor of public health in their search for explanations. 

Grinshteyn spoke to USF News about her research and what she's learned.

What motivated you to research firearm deaths?
Part of my research focuses on people's fear of being a victim of violent crimes. Related to that, I study firearm victimization.

In the news magazine The Week, you said firearms are "killing us rather than protecting us." How so?
My research shows that the U.S. suffers disproportionately from firearm homicides, suicides, and unintentional deaths when compared with other high-income countries. Firearm homicide rates are 25 times higher in the U.S. than in 22 other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries that are similar to the U.S. in terms of economic status, including Germany, Finland, and the U.K.

In my analysis published in 2015, I found that 82 percent of all firearm deaths within these 23 countries occurred in the U.S.; 90 percent of all women killed by firearms were U.S. women; and 91 percent of children aged 0-14 years killed by guns were U.S. children. These results show how much higher our firearm fatality rates are.

Why would gun violence interest a public health professor?
In 2015, 36,252 people died as a result of firearms in the U.S. That is almost 100 people every single day, on average. Public health focuses on population-level prevention of health issues, and what makes this a public health issue is that these deaths and injuries are preventable.

What could help raise awareness about gun violence as a public health problem?
I think it's increasingly being recognized as a public health concern. More people are talking about firearm violence now, it's being written about more in both academic literature and popular media. But right now, research on firearm violence prevention is underfunded and that really limits our knowledge about the problem.

What ideas do you have to address the issue?
Public health looks at how lots of different solutions can come together to solve a big problem. We need policy changes, program changes, community-level interventions. We need to look at our policies surrounding who can purchase firearms, how easy it is to purchase them without a background check in some states, and what kinds of firearms are legal to purchase. Increased communication about how to prevent homicides, suicides, and unintentional gun deaths and injuries should be a priority in communities and specific to the issues with which they are dealing.

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