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White House Enlists Doctors and Hospitals To Combat Gun Violence

The White House is calling on hospital executives, doctors, and other health care leaders to take bolder steps to prevent gun violence by gathering more data about gunshot injuries and routinely counseling patients about safe use of firearms.

Biden administration officials are hosting back-to-back events Thursday and Friday at the White House for about 160 health care officials, calling gun violence a “public health crisis” that requires them to act.

The strategy also reflects a stark political reality: Congress has been deadlocked on most gun-related legislation for years, with a deep divide between Republicans and Democrats. If Democratic President Joe Biden wants to get anything done quickly, he will need to look outside the Capitol. He has already enlisted educators to talk to parents about safe gun storage and community workers to help at-risk youth.

“The president has been clear: This is a public health crisis. So, to solve it, we need the leaders from the health care sector,” Rob Wilcox, a deputy director of the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, told KFF Health News. “Those are the leaders that run the health systems and hospitals that we go to for treatment, and it’s those doctors, nurses, practitioners on the front lines.”

Health experts have long described gun violence as a public health crisis, one that disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic residents in poor neighborhoods.

In 2022, more than 48,000 people were killed by guns in the U.S., or about 132 people a day, and suicides accounted for more than half of those deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 200-plus Americans are injured each day, according to estimates from Johns Hopkins University research.

Guns are the leading cause of death for children and teens.

Gun violence prevention advocates applauded the Biden administration for attempting to depoliticize the issue by focusing on its health impacts. The health-centric message also resonates with the public, said Fatimah Loren Dreier, executive director of the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, who planned to attend the June 6 event.

“The idea that there can be a bipartisan-driven, apolitical way to address the gun violence problem has created tremendous opportunity,” she said.

But the initiative isn’t just about messaging. It’s about numbers and statistics. Relative to America’s other deadly threats — such as cancer, HIV, and automobile crashes — fewer federal dollars fund gun violence research, mostly because of politics.

In 1996, Congress cut federal funding for gun control research by the CDC, essentially shifting the responsibility for funding and conducting the research to the private sector and academia — and with a fraction of the previous budget. In 2019, Congress reversed course and has since agreed every year to allocate $25 million to the CDC and the National Institutes of Health for gun research, but public health experts say it’s not nearly enough. By comparison, roughly three times that amount was earmarked for research on the prevention and treatment of underage drinking in fiscal year 2023, and 10 times as much to Parkinson’s disease research.

Slashing CDC research funding for firearms created decades-long gaps in data — and hamstrung efforts to respond to the crisis, researchers and health officials say. For instance, there’s little government data available to researchers on firearms, even basic statistics such as firearm ownership by city and which guns are used in shootings.

More timely and comprehensive data could give researchers a better understanding of the trends behind gun violence — and the steps to take to prevent it, said Bechara Choucair, an executive vice president and the chief health officer at Kaiser Permanente, who planned to attend the June 6 White House event.

“Anytime you want to address a problem with a public health lens, you have to understand the data,” he said. “You have to understand the data at a granular level so you can design interventions and test interventions and see if it works or if it doesn’t work.”

The White House is asking state and local health departments, health systems, and hospitals to boost timely data collection on emergency room visits for firearm-related injuries to “support state and local jurisdictions in identifying and responding to emerging public health problems,” Wilcox said.

The goal is “to inform prevention efforts,” he said.

The data will cover fatal and nonfatal injuries. Existing CDC data focuses on deaths, while its data on injuries is limited. For instance, one person was killed in the Feb. 14 shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl victory parade, but the CDC data likely will not count the roughly two dozen other people who were injured.

Collecting more detailed data could be costly for hospitals, whose ERs see most gunshot injuries, said Garen Wintemute, an ER physician and the head of a violence prevention program at the University of California-Davis. Right now, hospitals gather medical information about gunshot wounds and usually don’t get into other details, such as what type of gun or ammunition might have been used.

It’s not clear exactly what data hospitals will be asked to collect.

“It’s an intensive process,” Wintemute said. “The clinicians are going to gather the data that they need in order to treat the patient, and that may not include all the data that a researcher later would want to know about what happened.”

Some of this data is already being collected on a limited basis. The CDC collects near-real-time reporting of gunshot injuries from ERs in about a dozen states. The White House wants data from across the nation.

Wilcox added that federal grant dollars are available to health systems to conduct gun data collection through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which Biden signed in 2022.

This year, Biden asked Congress to again boost funding for CDC firearm research in his proposed fiscal 2025 budget, but his previous efforts have failed in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

Lawmakers have yet to release a draft of their spending proposal for the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We should focus our CDC resources on infectious diseases, transmittable diseases, and certainly chronic diseases rather than controversial, political-charged activities,” Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) said of Biden’s 2024 funding proposal.

Surveys show most Americans — across political affiliations and regardless of gun ownership — support policies that could reduce violence.

At this week’s meetings with health leaders, White House officials will also encourage doctors to talk with patients and the public about gun safety and securing guns.

When Wintemute talks with patients in the ER, he sits beside them and asks about their safety and the safety of others in their home, a practice he said many doctors already use to address an array of potential risks in a person’s life. The White House’s call for physicians to talk about gun violence legitimizes that, he said.

“A health professional can do what we do about tobacco and alcohol and other sorts of potentially risky behaviors, and talk with patients about how do we minimize the risk,” Wintemute said.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

[Correction: This article was updated at 9:45 a.m. ET on June 6, 2024, to correct the title of Kaiser Permanente’s Bechara Choucair.]

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