By Karen Sheehan, MD
There were nearly 300 shootings in Chicago in January — over twice as many as last January and three times as many as January 2014. It feels like it must be easier to get a gun than a quality education in some of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods, but we really don’t know, because of what is essentially a ban on firearm research. For example, we don’t even know where the shooters get the guns. Are the guns stolen? Are they bought legitimately and then used for crime? Why do some neighborhoods have more shootings than others? Is it because of poverty? Is it because of a large gang presence?
It is nearly impossible to address a problem if you don’t have the facts. Most of us hadn’t heard about the Zika virus until a couple of weeks ago, but we already know a great deal about it from a handful of researchers. We know how the virus presents clinically, how it likely got to Brazil from French Polynesia, how it is transmitted by a mosquito, and that scientists have begun to identify potential strategies to stop its transmission.
In contrast, even though violence is the leading cause of death for young people in Chicago, we don’t know the best way to limit access to guns that are used in violence. Would strengthening our gun sentencing laws be the best approach? Or should we focus on enhancing the background-check system?
As a pediatric emergency medicine physician in Chicago, I have had the sad responsibility to care for children and adolescents who have been shot. This experience in caring for firearm injury victims has reinforced my certainty that firearm injury is not just a criminal justice issue, but also a health issue, similar to motor vehicle injury and cancer. Each of these events, even if the child or adolescent recovers, causes pain and suffering for the child and his family. To decrease the number of people injured or killed by firearms, we need to invest resources — funding, people and political will — to support firearm injury prevention research. These are the same strategies we have used to decrease the number of people impacted by motor vehicle crashes and cancer. At the present moment, there is limited funding to support high-quality firearm injury prevention research and there are few junior researchers being trained to study this issue. Currently, we seem to have plenty of political will on the issue of gun violence; it just doesn’t seem focused on trying to better understand the problem.
A gun is a consumer product that can be used appropriately or inappropriately. Studying how to minimize the inappropriate use of a gun may help us identify strategies to decrease the firearm violence our young people experience. Both the mosquito that carries the Zika virus and an inappropriately used gun have the ability to cause severe harm. Scientists should be supported to find the means to stop both of these health threats in their tracks.