By Chris Adams

For Dr. Garen Wintemute, violence should not be considered the new normal.

And from his vantage point inside a hospital emergency department, gun violence is more than a law enforcement and social problem. It’s a public health issue as well.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Wintemute, of the University of California, Davis, medical school and health system, put the issue of societal violence in stark relief with a quote from former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher: “If it’s not a health problem, then why are all those people dying from it?”

“It used to be a hard sell to say that violence was a public health problem,” Wintemute said. “It’s not a hard sell anymore.”

Wintemute shared the most recent statistics on gun violence: In 2017, there were 38,396 deaths from firearm violence, nearly all of them homicide and suicide. Beyond that, of all homicides, 75% involve guns, and of all suicides, 51% involved guns.

What Wintemute researches at the Violence Prevention Research Program is the public policy options that can help reduce those numbers. He detailed the research on several public policies that can have an impact on those numbers (although many run straight into a political buzz saw when politicians get involved).

On background checks for firearm purchase, for example, he said they can be effective but suffer from implementation problems: poor reporting, false negatives, poor definitions of prohibiting events, poor compliance and enforcement, and firearms being released before checks are completed.

“At the population level, it’s been very difficult to show a beneficial effect across an entire population,” he said.

He also talked about programs to expand the denial criteria for firearm purchases (to include previous violent misdemeanors, for example); extreme risk protection orders, which have been enacted to prevent self-harm and also in response to mass shootings; and firearm recovery programs that take back legally purchased firearms from people who have run into legal troubles.