On May 18, 10 people were killed in a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. Fortunately, no lives were lost on May 25 in another school shooting in Indiana, which marked the 101st U.S. mass shooting this year. Considering that it’s only June 3, that means that 2018 has had nearly as many massacres as days. What’s especially troubling is that 23 of those mass shootings occurred in schools.
Firearms are the third-leading cause of death among U.S. children ages 1 to 17. On average, from 2012 to 2014, nearly 1,300 children in the United States died each year from firearm-related injuries, according to a 2017 study in the journal Pediatrics.
These are infuriating and distressing numbers, but there are other statistics, no less troubling, that are important to keep in mind. Here are a few: According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, American trauma centers treat 1,565 gun violence victims a week, at an average cost of $23,500 per patient, which means we spend about $2 billion a year treating victims of gunshot wounds. In a separate study in the medical journal Health Affairs, three researchers from Johns Hopkins University put the numbers even higher: The average gunshot victim, they found, required about $5,254 of emergency care and as much as $95,887 in inpatient care.
The picture grows grimmer when you consider how these patients pay for their care. Researchers found that 41 percent of hospitalizations due to gunshot wounds between 2006 and 2014 were paid for by Medicare or Medicaid, and nearly $1.56 billion was incurred by people without insurance, many of whom never paid their bills.
You don’t have to be a physician or a public policy expert to understand what the numbers mean: Gun violence isn’t just a national tragedy; it’s also a public health crisis. And that, oddly, is a bit of good news.
Gun violence often baffles and enrages us — it’s painful to see young lives lost to pointless carnage — but if we treat it not as a political battlefield or a moral quandary but as a health challenge, we might begin to see solutions presenting themselves.
Deaths from cancer have declined because we figured out how to think about it correctly. This year, the American Cancer Society reported that cancer deaths have plummeted 26 percent from their peak in 1991, mainly because fewer Americans smoke. That decline was not achieved merely by demanding that cigarettes be outlawed or questioning why smokers put themselves and others at risk. Rather, it was achieved by means that, viewed disparately, may seem like ineffectual cures for the potent disease: We attached warning labels to cigarette packs, worked with Hollywood to stop depicting smoking as glamorous or cool, and invested in giving smokers the education and the alternatives they needed.
If we want to do something about gun violence, the same old sounds and furies won’t work. There are many arguments on both sides of the debate, but our partisan quarrels aren’t stopping the next shooter from taking a life, his own or others. So instead of quibbling over the Second Amendment, let’s focus on something on which we can agree: Gun violence takes an enormous toll on the nation’s taxed health system, and we should work together to reduce that burden.
It’s time to get creative. We should certainly invest more in mental health education and awareness, but we also should start selling guns with ominous warning labels, just as we do cigarettes. Among other potential solutions, let’s consider handing out pamphlets at shooting ranges about the dangers of firearms, increasing public awareness of the fact that more 1,200 children in this country are killed or injured every year in accidental shootings because they got their hands on guns, often a parent’s, and investing in outreach and education in communities particularly afflicted by gun violence.
Whatever the solution, it can’t wait much longer. The epidemic is only getting worse.
Michael Dowling is the president and chief executive of Northwell Health.