VIEW: Gun Violence Is a Public Health Issue

Alexis Yeboah has a Masters of Public Health from the University of Minnesota and is a writer and healthcare consultant focused on whole-person care for Black communities.

I don’t know where to start with a column about gun violence. It is definitely a public health issue — which is my primary area of interest — but there is so much work to be done that even engaging in the conversation feels daunting. For me, what we are facing right now in Minneapolis, where I’ve lived for the vast majority of my life, where home has always been makes me feel raw and traumatized and honestly, despondent.

Simply from August 7 to 10 this year, there were more than 15 shooting incidents reported in Minneapolis, and ten of them were fatal.

Grassroots organization Racial Justice Network (RJN) has recently called on local leaders to recognize their statements of more than a year ago “to respond to the community stress and trauma” and recognize the need for emergency resources for mental, chemical, and medical health as well as continue with trauma-informed support to create actually affordable housing and help serve basic needs.

We have a gun violence problem and we have to shift our lenses upstream. So far, more than 24,000 people in the U.S. have died of gun violence in 2021. Disengagement isn’t an option.

In public health, we are taught that violence is contagious and a public health issue. People are suffering. Violence is often a symptom of an unmet community need.

The United States has a gun problem, the whole world knows it, and are horrified by our lack of action, our complacency, how we’ve normalized gun violence and Minnesota certainly is not immune. Gun violence is a growing issue around the country but is preventable, if we commit to taking a coordinated and cross-collaborative approach. As a solution to gun violence, the American Public Health Association suggests the following:

  1. Surveillance – regular tracking and reporting on gun-related deaths and injuries
  2. Research – understanding the risk factors associated with gun violence, which go beyond simply one person’s death but to community-level risk factors such as diminished economic opportunities and low social connection and participation.
  3. Policy – enact smarter gun legislation, which does not include getting rid of all guns, but being much more mindful of who has them

Minnesota Women’s Press recently reported in its Transforming Justice newsletter about the results of a gun violence question in a public safety survey of readers. May women of color explained they did not feel comfortable or safe around guns because of past and potential violent encounters. They reported being fearful of both strangers and law enforcement. Several women from rural Minnesota, on the other hand, explain they carry guns for personal protection, living in more gun-oriented communities and around wild animals.

In June 2020, the Minneapolis city council and mayor took a historical step in declaring racism a public health emergency. In their resolution they outlined ten actions including:

  1. “Develop and implement an annual report with racially disaggregated data on the health of Minneapolis BIPOC, including recommendations for actions to eliminate any disparities and improve overall health.” (Surveillance)
  2. “Measure the effectiveness of City programming and the return on investment of public dollar allocations in the budget towards advancing racial equity and reporting these results annually.” (Research)
  3. “Develop a comprehensive rapid response protocol to immediate needs and long-term work to address systemic inequities. This includes activating the Office of Emergency Management and Incident Command System, the Health Department, the Division of Race e & Equity, and other public facing departments to respond to community stress and trauma.” (Policy)

As we can see the building blocks to address the gun violence crisis is there. We have to resist the urge to push the national and local emergency of gun violence down to an individual level. It is a public health issue.

Yes, maybe one person makes a decision in a split second, but many macro system level decisions landed that individual in the place to pull the trigger.

Every action within a community is a result of operating within a system. We have a system that has a foundation in the accessibility and over reliance on guns, and in racist policies, which is costing society in human life, publicly funded medical expenses, reduced quality of life, legal costs, and much more. What if we instead lived in a system founded on accessible health care and housing, an overabundance of economic and educational opportunities every single resident and policies focused on equity?

We currently have a system that has devalued health, housing, medical care, employment, and educational opportunities.

We don’t have to be that way. I implore you to think about your role in our gun-centric culture, the macro-level systems you’ve been part of or impacted by. We have to do something more; despondency and complacency are no longer options.