Let's Change the Conversation Around How We Look at Guns

AG Healey on Physicians, Patients, and Gun Violence

BY ROBYN ALIE
MMS PUBLIC HEALTH MANAGER

Maura Healey
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy 

At the MMS Public Health Leadership Forum on April 5, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey cited gun violence as a priority for her office. Vital Signs spoke with her about the issue.

VS: How would you describe the problem of gun violence in MA? Does it differ from other states?

AG HEALEY: Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of gun deaths in the country. That said, we see far too many of our residents die tragically and senselessly because of guns. We see gun violence manifest itself in different ways: sometimes it involves a mental health concern. A high percentage of gun deaths are suicides. We have an issue with respect to gang violence, and we’ve seen shooters at an increasingly younger age, and that’s really disturbing when you’re talking about 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds with guns shooting at one another or other people.

Massachusetts has some of the strongest gun laws and regulations in the country. I think it’s really important that we do everything we can to take steps to put an end to irresponsible and illegal gun use and sales.

VS: You have called this problem a public health problem. Why?

AG HEALEY: [According to] studies from the American Public Health Association, 91 Americans are killed with guns on average each day, which is close to 35,000 people annually. In an average month, 61 women are shot to death by intimate partners. At least seven kids or teenagers are killed a day by guns in this country. For 2013, gun-related deaths, 62 percent were suicides. And another thing for me that’s important: guns are the leading cause of death for black men ages 15–34.

In the same way we changed the conversation around opioid prescriptions, let’s change the conversation around how we look at guns. It’s divisive when it comes to speaking about this issue as a second amendment issue. I believe in the second amendment, I respect the second amendment. That’s not a question. But it really bothers me when you have efforts to prevent the study of this as a public health matter, given the serious impact it’s had on public health. Not just for individuals — those who were shot, those who were killed, those who were doing the shooting, it has such a profound impact not just on individuals and families but also on entire communities. And that’s why I think it needs to be viewed as a public health issue and as a public health issue, by definition, it needs the involvement and work and support of the medical community.

VS: It’s somewhat unique to hear you, as Massachusetts Attorney General, talk about this as a public health issue, when so many are talking about this issue as a legal issue and a political issue.

AG HEALEY: We’ve been there. We’ve done that.

Hearing the political discourse now with the presidential election, there will be those discussions, there will be that debate. But I’m sort of moving past that, to look at what’s going on with underlying trauma and violence in homes, on our streets, and in our communities. To me, this is a public health matter. Just look at the number of people who have died, who continue to die each day, each year, and thanks to medicine, look at all the victims that are out there that do survive. But it’s something that we all need to focus on. Not only does violence at times beget violence. But the cost and impact on victims and survivors is so profound and presents all sorts of mental, physical, and emotional health issues for those people, and for their families, and for the entire community. Massachusetts is no better place to engage in this discussion and take it on.

VS: How do you reframe the conversation? How do we take this from a political issue to a public health issue? AG HEALEY One thing would be [for] the CDC to actually study this. For years, the gun lobby worked hard to get a law in place that banned the CDC from studying this issue. To me it’s sort of amazing: you think about the number of people dying from this every day. We study all sorts of things, whether it’s car accidents, and all sorts of medical issues, and here we have this issue and Congress has banned the CDC from studying it. To me, that’s ridiculous. That needs to be changed.

VS: Is there something the MMS and physicians could do to help change that conversation?

AG HEALEY: I think they have a really important role to play in changing that conversation, in talking about it with their patients, in talking about it with their colleagues, and supporting efforts to allow this issue to be studied and talking about as a public health matter, so people really understand what’s happening and the consequences of what we have in place in terms of laws — the consequences of not adequately providing resources that would help intercede and break cycles of violence, break cycles of trauma in communities. A lot of this effort requires funding and I think that the MMS has such a powerful platform and can be such a powerful voice. Because people, I think uniformly, care about their health. We may disagree along very political lines on various issues, but people care about their health, they care about their kids’ health. We just haven’t talked about it enough as a society. We haven’t approached it through this lens. Hopefully by speaking about it and raising it, maybe there’ll be more instances where we identify people who may be harmed by themselves or others and get them the services that are needed — protect potential victims that much sooner. Because strictly as a law enforcement matter, I don’t think we have been strictly successful at breaking cycles of violence and addressing the prevalence of gun violence in this country.

VS: Is Massachusetts positioned to be a leader on this issue, in changing the conversation?

AG HEALEY: Absolutely. When it comes to health, public health, and innovation, and the medical profession, Massachusetts leads the way. I think we have a tremendous opportunity here in this state to really raise the consciousness on this issue and push to shift the lens on this and have it seen as a public health issue. I think we’re uniquely situated among all the states to do just that because of the excellence of the health care profession here and the medical profession here in particular.

We’ve got to do something in this country. We just can’t let gun violence be our new normal. It’s amazing to me that we’re now at a point where little kids go to school and alongside their math and science lessons they’re learning how to prepare for an active shooter — things that were unimaginable, at least when I was growing up. I don’t pretend to have all the answers or the solution, I just think that this just cannot be. We need to get a handle on this as a country, and I think that the medical profession has a real role — an important role — to play in this. And for us to be successful, given the multifaceted nature of this problem, we’ll need a real mix of stakeholders and partners at the table. And the medical community is and will be a really terrific partner in this effort.

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