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Boufford: Gun violence is a threat to the public's health

Today, President Barack Obama presented a series of recommendations as part of a national effort to end needless and tragic gun violence.

These recommendations were not created in a vacuum; rather, he and Vice President Joe Biden sought to bring diverse voices to the table - those who see a ban on guns as a threat to their right to bear arms and those whose lives have been shattered by gun violence.

The debate around these recommendations will more than likely focus on the constitutionality of proposed gun control laws, the lack of enforcement in existing gun laws, greater scrutiny on background checks, and funding for mental illness treatment.

Absent from this conversation is the way in which gun violence threatens the public's health. We can no longer ignore the annual U.S. toll of firearm deaths, by far the highest in the developed world, as a pressing public health concern.

The current death toll from firearms, 31,000 lives a year, would properly be seen as intolerable if it represented deaths from measles or contamination of the water supply. It exceeds the number of babies who die each year during their first year of life (25,000) or people who die from AIDS (9,500) or illicit drugs (17,000).

As a society, we address public health threats by identifying the root causes, reducing exposure, and instituting protective measures. Advance identification of individuals who are likely to cause mass killings in schools, shopping malls, or movie houses is nearly impossible. And current laws do little to curb individual shootings, many of which involve household and neighborhood settings. We need to turn to protective measures, just as imposing speed limits and introducing safety belts have markedly reduced automobile deaths.

Moreover, bolstering public policy control measures to protect and enhance the health of the public is nothing new to our society. We require the immunization of children against infectious diseases, we enforce laws that regulate food and drugs, and we work to maintain a safe and clean water supply. We have even imposed a tax on disease-causing consumer products such as cigarettes.

In the same way, we must protect Americans from irresponsible gun use. We can start with a ban on assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, and other facilitators of mass murder. Many responsible gun owners will tell you that weapons like the AR-15 used in the Newtown, Conn., shootings are not appropriate for big-game hunting.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature - unified across party lines - have acted rapidly to restrict sales of assault weapons, limit the size of magazines, and restrict gun license eligibility. They are also increasing access to community mental health services. These are sound measures. Next steps should include directly engaging affected communities in finding solutions to gun violence just as the parents and loved ones of those killed in the Newtown shootings have done in the newly formed Sandy Hook Promise.

Most important, we must give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention greater ability to fully exercise its duties in both surveillance of the incidence and impact of gun violence to better understand the problem and educate the public on steps for preventing death and injury through the use of firearms.

In the wake of recent tragic shootings, we should ask ourselves what we will do to protect our neighbors and ourselves from this, as from any other, epidemic scourge. When we have made this decision, we will be ready to act to regulate firearms.

The evidence is clear: we must now take action to protect our neighbors and ourselves from this devastating public health crisis. As a nation, we can only improve the health of the public when we get our priorities straight.

Jo Ivey Boufford is the president of the New York Academy of Medicine.