Saturday, July 21, 2018

A "well-regulated militia": can doctors prevent gun violence?

Family physicians have long recognized that gun violence is a national public health epidemic. In 2015, a coalition of nine medical, public health, and legal organizations, including the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Bar Association, endorsed several specific recommendations for preventing firearm-related injury and death. These measures included universal criminal background checks for all firearm purchases; educating patients about gun safety and intervening in those at risk of self-harm or harm to others; improving access to mental health care; regulating civilian use of firearms with large capacity magazines; and supporting more research on evidence-based policies to prevent gun violence. A 2014 editorial in American Family Physician also reviewed the role of primary care clinicians in counseling about gun safety based on the best available evidence.

After the February massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida by a 19 year-old former student wielding a legally purchased semiautomatic AR-15-style rifle, the medical editors of AFP felt that we needed to do more to empower clinicians. Surely, when the Founding Fathers endorsed the necessity of a "well-regulated Militia" in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, they did not envision mentally disturbed teenagers toting weapons with enough firepower to overwhelm entire regiments of Minutemen.

In a special editorial recently published online ahead of print, Dr. Sumi Sexton, I, and the AFP medical editors argue that family medicine's emphasis on care of the whole person creates a duty to "confront the epidemic of violence by persons using guns." We review the evidence of the effects of firearm regulations, mental health counseling, and active shooter training on gun safety and violence. Unfortunately, evidence for many interventions remains limited:

A 2018 RAND review of U.S. studies on gun policy published since 2003 concluded that child-access prevention laws (e.g., safe gun storage) reduce self-inflicted and unintentional firearm deaths and nonfatal injuries among youth, and may reduce unintentional firearm injuries among adults. The review also found moderate evidence that laws requiring background checks and prohibiting firearm purchases by individuals with mental illness reduce violent crime and deaths. In contrast, state stand-your-ground laws are associated with increased homicide rates. There was insufficient evidence to determine whether any laws prevent mass shootings. 

Notably, almost two-thirds of the 36,000 firearm-related deaths in the U.S. each year are suicides, leading to our recommendation that "strategies to mitigate firearm suicides should include depression screening and nonjudgmentally asking anyone with depression whether they have a gun in the home." Useful clinical tools include the FIGHTS screening tool for adolescent firearm carrying, the SAD PERSONS suicide risk assessment scale, and the Violence Screening and Assessment of Needs tool for assessing risk of violence in military veterans.

Finally, we encourage clinicians to address the epidemic by making their voices heard in community meetings, online forums, and local publications and communicating with elected state and federal officials to advocate for funding research to study ways to reduce gun violence: "Whether it is speaking up in clinical settings, within our community, or with our elected officials, our voices can make a meaningful difference for our patients, our communities, and our nation."

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This post was first published on the AFP Community Blog.

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