From the Community | Healthcare’s role in the ‘firearm epidemic’

Jan. 25, 2024, 1:13 a.m.

This opinion is part of a larger collaboration with a coalition of 140+ student leaders in solidarity with gun violence prevention, representing 90 student groups across the nation. On Jan. 24, we published a student-written piece entitled “We will not wait for the next school shooting” in 50 student newspapers from across the country, all on the same day. 

A teacher once told me that his nightmares as a child were framed by the Cold War in the United States. His nightmares consisted of frantic dashes to bunkers and the ominous wait for a feared nuclear threat to dissipate.

In my generation of Americans, these nightmares are set in the familiar walls of our lecture halls. We hide behind desks and crawl on floors littered with shattered glass and bullet casings, as the ever-present specter of gun violence looms over our lives. 

Mass shootings, with their tragic immediacy and scale, naturally dominate our national discourse on gun violence. Yet, by focusing predominantly on these events, we risk neglecting other aspects of gun violence, including homicides, accidental deaths and, most notably, suicides. These dimensions of gun violence, frequently pigeonholed as criminal justice issues, demand a broader dialogue around mental health, overall well-being and firearm safety. 

Consider the deeply intertwined issues of mental health and firearm-related suicides. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 56% of the 43,000 firearm-related deaths in 2023 were attributed to suicide. Without a firearm, only 5% of suicide attempts are fatal. With a firearm, that figure jumps to 85%, making gun ownership — quite simply — a major risk factor for suicide. Alarmingly, a 2022 study found that around one third of people who reported symptoms of depression owned a firearm. 

These alarming statistics reveal that gun ownership is inexorably linked to physical and mental well-being. It is imperative that our healthcare system treats firearms as a significant risk factor and determinant of patient health. Medical professionals should routinely ask patients about firearm ownership and provide counseling on safe storage and handling practices.

However, firearm safety is a topic that many physicians are afraid to broach. Many physicians feel unqualified to provide advice on safe storage practices or temporary transfers of gun ownership. A study in Ohio involving primary care pediatricians revealed that only 39% of pediatricians felt they had received adequate training to counsel families about firearm safety. Despite 72% of pediatricians agreeing about having a responsibility to discuss firearm safety, the actual practice of screening for firearm ownership and providing counseling was rare. Yet, the safe storage and handling of firearms is particularly important in the pediatric setting, considering that guns are the most likely cause of death among children and teens.

In addition to doctors feeling ill-prepared to discuss firearm safety, patients often fail to see the relevance of such discussions. In a survey conducted by the University of Michigan School of Medicine, more than half of adult patients skipped a question about gun ownership on a questionnaire provided in the clinic waiting room. It is not a topic anyone is comfortable with. Addressing the genuine public health risks posed by firearms therefore necessitates a shift in how we approach doctor-patient conversations. 

This is precisely the aim of Team SAFE (Scrubs Against the Firearms Epidemic), an organization co-founded by Dr. Dean Winslow and Dr. Sarabeth Spitzer at Stanford University. Their mission is to equip healthcare providers with skills to advise their patients, communities and legislators on firearm use and ownership. With chapters in medical schools across the United States, Team SAFE is integrating firearm safety into medical curriculum via training on firearm-related injuries, firearm anatomy and patient counseling. Through these resources, Dr. Winslow “hope[s] that a doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist has the knowledge to inquire about firearms and encourage safe practices.”

Whether or not you are a current or aspiring healthcare professional, we are all bound together by our role as patients. These crucial dialogues represent more than just preventative measures: They can be life-saving interventions. Patient-doctor conversations around firearm safety can be uncomfortable, but that is exactly why they are necessary — they are a small price to pay to prevent more lives from being lost.

My generation is sick of nightmares about gun violence. 

We’re ready to dream instead.

Arusha Patil ’25 is a junior majoring in computer science.

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