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U.S. surgeon general declares gun violence a public health crisis

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The U.S. surgeon general on Tuesday declared gun violence a public health crisis, driven by the fast-growing number of injuries and deaths involving firearms in the country.

The advisory issued by Dr. Vivek Murthy, the nation’s top doctor, came as the U.S. grappled with another summer weekend marked by mass shootings that left dozens of people dead or wounded.

“People want to be able to walk through their neighborhoods and be safe,” Murthy told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “America should be a place where all of us can go to school, go to work, go to the supermarket, go to our house of worship, without having to worry that that’s going to put our life at risk.”

To drive down gun deaths, Murthy calls on the U.S. to ban automatic rifles, introduce universal background checks for purchasing guns, regulate the industry, pass laws that would restrict their use in public spaces and penalize people who fail to safely store their weapons.

None of those suggestions can be implemented nationwide without legislation passed by Congress, which typically recoils at gun control measures. Some state legislatures, however, have enacted or may consider some of the surgeon general’s proposals.

Murthy said there is “broad agreement” that gun violence is a problem, citing a poll last year that found most Americans worry at least sometimes that a loved one might be injured by a firearm. More than 48,000 Americans died from gun injuries in 2022.

Murthy’s advisory promises to be controversial and will certainly incense Republican lawmakers, most of whom opposed Murthy’s confirmation — twice — to the job over his statements on gun violence.

Murthy has published warnings about troubling health trends in American life, including social media use and loneliness. He’s stayed away from issuing a similar advisory about gun violence since his 2014 confirmation as surgeon general was stalled and nearly derailed by the firearm lobby and Republicans who opposed his past statements about firearms.

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Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy

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Murthy ended up promising the Senate that he did “not intend to use my office as surgeon general as a bully pulpit on gun control.”

Then-President Donald Trump dismissed Murthy in 2017, but President Joe Biden nominated Murthy again to the position in 2021. At his second confirmation hearing, he told senators that declaring guns a public health crisis would not be his focus during a new term.

But he has faced mounting pressure from some doctors and Democratic advocacy groups to speak out more. A group of four former surgeon generals asked the Biden administration to produce a report on the problem in 2022.

“Take this issue out of the realm of politics”   

“It is now time for us to take this issue out of the realm of politics and put it in the realm of public health, the way we did with smoking more than a half century ago,” Murthy told the AP.

A 1964 report from the surgeon general that raised awareness about the dangers of smoking is largely credited with snubbing out tobacco use and precipitating regulations on the industry.

Children and younger Americans, in particular, are suffering from gun violence, Murthy notes in his advisory called “Firearm Violence: A Public Health Crisis in America.” Suicide by gun rates have increased significantly in recent years for Americans under the age of 35. Children in the U.S. are far more likely to die from gun wounds than children in other countries, the research he gathered shows.

In addition to new regulations, Murthy calls for an increase on gun violence research and for the health system — which is likely to be more amenable to his advisory — to promote gun safety education during doctor visits.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported rates of gun injuries last year remained above levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic for a fourth straight year. Preliminary CDC data on gun deaths also show rates last year remained worse than in 2019 nationwide, despite a slowdown off of peak levels in 2020 and 2021.

A new FBI report released Monday showed that active shooters violently targeted members of the public across the U.S. at a rate that was 89% higher from 2019 to 2023 than in the previous five-year period. Last year, 105 individuals were killed during those active shooting incidents, the highest level in recent years. 

The public safety numbers released Monday by federal investigators showed a mix of slight year-over-year improvements in some areas of concern across the country — including a 4% decrease in active shootings in 2023 compared to 2022 — and small drops in other metrics, like total casualties and “mass killing” events.

Throughout the U.S., 244 victims were shot by active shooters last year; 139 were injured and 105 were killed. Compared to the previous year, total casualty rates — injuries and deaths combined — were down from 313 in 2022, but five more people were killed in 2023 than in 2022. 

Those incidents represent just a fraction of the overall toll of gun violence. On average, gun homicides killed more than 53 people per day in the U.S. in 2022, according to CDC data.

Alexander Tin and Rob Legare contributed to this report.

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