Confronting the Public Health Implications of Gun Violence​

Community Engagement; Policy; Public Health; Research

Here’s what the statistics tell us: There were 11,208 homicides and 21,175 suicides committed with firearms in the United States in 2013. Of the 275 murders reported last year in the St. Louis region, 234 were committed with guns. In 2010, Missouri had the fourth-highest rate of homicides with a firearm in the nation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that this year, for the first time, guns will kill more people than automobile accidents.

But the available data only tell part of the story; there’s still much more that we don’t know. How many guns are out there? What percentage are securely stored? How are they distributed among different regions, age groups and populations? What are the medical costs associated with shootings? What are the costs to the economy? Is gun violence getting worse or better? What are the best strategies for reducing harm?

In 2013, a report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of The National Academies in Washington D.C., identified the lack of data about the public health aspects of gun violence as a serious national challenge. The report’s authors called upon researchers at public health organizations and universities to dedicate resources to studying the problem and contributing to a fuller base of information.

“Gun Violence: A Public Health Crisis,” a yearlong initiative at Washington University in St. Louis, will invite scholars, medical professionals, community leaders and citizens to take a hard look at the serious, tragic public health consequences of gun violence in America. Beginning this month, the university will host a series of events and discussions designed to explore three key themes: What we know, what we need to know, and what to do about this critical issue.

“Deaths and injuries by firearms represent a profound public health crisis,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “The statistics are alarming, and the situation only seems to be getting worse. It’s time for action and we, as a prominent research institution, have an important role to play in getting to the heart of the underlying issues, finding out what’s really going on, and helping to lay the foundation on which a solution can be built.”

The issue of gun violence became personal for Wrighton and his wife, Risa Zwerling Wrighton, late last year when 16-year old Chelsea Harris, who Zwerling Wrighton had mentored for many years, was shot to death in St. Louis. The tragedy inspired Zwerling Wrighton to begin thinking about ways to raise awareness and bring together people with the knowledge and expertise to make a difference.

“Chelsea’s death was extremely painful for her family and all who knew and loved her,” Zwerling Wrighton said. “As I’ve tried to make sense of the loss of a beautiful young person so full of life and brimming with potential, my grief has turned to resolve that we must do something to stop the epidemic of gun violence.

“The sad fact is there are many other ‘Chelseas’ out there, and unless institutions like Washington University stand up and do something to help find a solution, I fear there will be no end to the heartache and suffering,” she said.

The Washington University initiative, which will be presented under the leadership of the university’s Institute for Public Health and the Brown School, will begin Tuesday, April 21, with an opening event featuring a keynote address by Alan Leshner, PhD, chair of the 2013 study committee and CEO emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The event, which will be held at 5 p.m. in the Eric P. Newman Education Center at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, will also feature welcome remarks from St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and a panel discussion moderated by Edward F. Lawlor, PhD, dean of the Brown School and the William E. Gordon Distinguished Professor.

Panelists are:

  • James Clark, vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life
  • Robert “Bo” Kennedy, MD, professor of pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics Emergency Medicine at the School of Medicine;
  • Becky Morgan, Missouri chapter lead for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America; and
  • Nancy L. Staudt, JD, PhD, dean of the School of Law and the Howard and Caroline Cayne Professor of Law.

Building upon this initial discussion, a series of additional events will be held throughout the 2015-16 academic year, including three anchor events, each highlighting one of the three areas of focus:

  • October 2015: What we know — A tremendous amount of work has been done on issues related to gun use, as well as prevention and intervention to reduce gun violence. This event will provide an opportunity to consider the breadth of existing knowledge and allow participants to learn from others’ experience.
  • January 2016: What we need to know — Building off the base of existing knowledge – particularly in response to the call for additional research – this event will begin to work toward identifying areas in which additional effort is necessary, and consider how an institution like Washington University can help address gaps and broaden understanding.
  • April 2016: What to do — Based on available information and additional research, it will be possible to consider tangible steps that could be taken to address the public health implications of gun violence, with a goal of better informing the policymaking process and the public in an effort to reduce death and injury related to firearms.

“Historically, the public health perspective has been a powerful tool in raising awareness, mobilizing communities and enacting change on a number of critical issues,” said William G. Powderly, MD, the J. William Campbell Professor of Medicine, director of the Institute for Public Health, and co-director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the School of Medicine.

“By bringing together medical professionals, scholars and members of our community, we can begin an important conversation, with the ultimate goal of significantly improving the safety and well-being of our citizens,” he said.

The April 21 event is free and open to the Washington University community and the general public. More information is available online here.