Harborview chief of trauma says a public health approach needed to address gun violence

Deaths from firearm violence higher than motor vehicle crashes in 2017

  • Monday, August 5, 2019 4:20pm
  • News
Dr. Eileen Bulger/Courtesy Photo, Harborview

Dr. Eileen Bulger/Courtesy Photo, Harborview

By UW Medicine | Newsroom

Following a deadly weekend, there are nationwide calls to address these mass shootings. But firearm violence happens every day.

“I think it’s important to recognize that mass shootings represent 1 percent of the firearms problem in this country,” says Dr. Eileen Bulger, chief of trauma at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, in an UW Medicine | Newsroom article. “And it’s a horrible thing that we have to solve, but we have to tackle the big picture, the 40,000 people that die every year in the country from firearm violence. We can’t forget them.”

In 2017, the number of deaths from firearm injuries in the U.S. exceeded that from motor vehicle crashes for the first time.

There were 39,773 firearm deaths or 12.2 deaths per 100,000 population in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 38,659 vehicle traffic deaths or 11.9 deaths per 100,000 population.

“If you look at the numbers, this last year is the first year that there were more deaths in the United States from firearm injury than motor vehicle crashes,” Bulger said. “Years ago, motor vehicle crashes by far and away were the leading cause of death from traumatic injury.

“If you think about a problem like that from a comprehensive public health approach then you can see if you study the problem, if you invest in research to study the problem and you develop interventions based on that research then you can have a dramatic effect. We have cut the deaths and disabilities from motor vehicle crashes dramatically since the 1960s. We can do the same thing with this problem if we focus on it in that way.”

Bulger, also a professor of surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine, says the American College of Surgeons worked with groups to develop a list of recommendations that can make an impact on firearm violence. She explains taking a public health approach to the issue in the way car crashes and smoking were addressed could be a solution.

“I think that if we take a public health approach, if we think of it the way we thought about motor vehicle crashes, or about how we’ve dealt with smoking or other public health problems, then I think we have a real opportunity to do something. I think throwing up our hands and saying oh we’re never going to solve this because it’s just politics is a mistake.

“It’s just sadness for our society it’s sadness that we haven’t solved the problem. And I think it redoubles our efforts to think about how we can address the problem of gun violence not just for mass shootings but for the everyday events we see in our trauma centers.”

Bulger said the politics need to be removed from the issue.

“There’s a tremendous amount we can do if we just sort of recognize that there’s an approach to this that’s not political,” she said. “Not challenging the Second Amendment but how can we identify the root causes of violence, manage those, and how can we make firearm ownership as safe as possible?”


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