March 11, 2020

Panelists discuss preventing firearm-related injuries and deaths

Experts offer consensus-based, nonpolitical solutions to a public health crisis that kills more than 39,000 people in the United States every year.

Expert panelists discuss nonpolitical strategies to reduce firearm injuries at Commonwealth Club event, underwritten by Kaiser Permanente. Photo courtesy of the Commonwealth Club, Ed Ritger photographer

For decades, efforts to prevent gun violence have typically resulted in contentious debates and ended in stalemates. Given the difficulties in advancing politically divisive solutions to preventing gun violence, many experts suggest we must move past politics and find consensus-based solutions. 

That was the focus of the second event in the Destination Health series underwritten by Kaiser Permanente at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. Kaiser Permanente convened a panel of experts to discuss nonpolitical public health solutions to prevent firearm-related injuries and deaths.

Bechara Choucair, MD, Kaiser Permanente’s chief health officer, set the stage for the panel discussion by framing the impacts of gun violence on the health care industry. “Every day in the United States, health professionals confront the effects of firearm injury in the clinical arena … and attempt to heal the wounds that firearms inflict on individuals, their families, and our communities,” he said. As the largest integrated health system in the country, Kaiser Permanente has “a responsibility to bring together health leaders, clinicians, and providers to help solve the challenges that impact the health of our own members and our communities.”

In fact, Kaiser Permanente has committed $2 million to conduct clinical research on firearm injury prevention the same way other leading causes of death are studied, Choucair said. This research focuses on how clinicians can help prevent firearm injuries.

Bechara Choucair speaking behind a lecturn

Bechara Choucair, Kaiser Permanente’s senior health officer, said Kaiser Permanente supports research that studies firearm injuries as a health issue. Photo courtesy of the Commonwealth Club, Ed Ritger photographer.

Panelists discussed programs that are having a real impact on preventing gun violence, including hospitals providing support and counseling to gun violence victims to protect them from further incidents.  

Finding common ground is the key, said Kyleanne “Ky” Hunter, PhD, a Marine combat veteran and vice president for programs at Brady United, a nonprofit that advocates against gun violence. Hunter said gun owners want the same thing as non-gun owners. “They are opposed to gun violence,” Hunter said. “We need to bring gun owners into this conversation.”

She said there was an opportunity to reduce gun violence by encouraging safe gun storage to prevent children from accessing the 393 million firearms in the United States. “Every day, there are 8 kids in this country shot by a gun they find in the home that is loaded and unlocked,” Hunter said.

Another panelist, Thea James, MD, associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine and associate chief medical officer at Boston Medical Center, said hospital programs that support victims after an injury have helped reduce gun violence. A handful of these programs exist in the United States. The Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, which counts Kaiser Permanente as a founding member, is attempting increase the number of such programs, which offer strategies to heal from the trauma caused by gun violence and to intentionally break rapidly-recurring cycles of violence, preventing further gun injuries.

In addition to nonpolitical solutions suggested by panelists, James also emphasized focusing on the causes of gun violence. Lack of housing, income, and education are all directly connected to health, James said.

Focusing on root causes cut Oakland shootings in half

Addressing underlying causes of violence, such as economic disparities and other forms of inequality, has cut gun violence 50% in Oakland, California, since 2012, said Mike McLively senior staff attorney, Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Interventions don't have to do with guns. They have to do with working person-to-person and addressing the trauma.”

Brian Watt, panel moderator and KQED radio anchor, asked, “What are the costs of gun violence?”

The answer: More than $229 billion per year in the United States, which includes lost wages, and health care and law enforcement price tags, McLively said. “We can no longer afford inaction.”

Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, whose father was shot and killed in Beirut in 1984, noted that even more important is the human cost. “I like to share my story to remind people that it’s not just about stats,” said Kerr, an advocate for gun violence prevention. “You can’t put a cost on what a father means to you, or your sister, or your brother, daughter, or son.”