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Will calling gun violence a 'public health crisis' change the political conversation?


Today Surgeon General Vivek Murphy declared gun violence a public health crisis in America, and he issued a 40-page advisory outlining the science and statistics around firearms, along with proposals to limit gun injuries and deaths. The issue of gun violence is a contentious political conversation in this country. But for years now, doctors and health care officials have pushed to make it a conversation about public health, as the surgeon general has done today. Dr. Cedric Dark is one of those doctors and treats gunshot victims himself. He's an associate professor of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. That's in Houston, Texas. Dr. Dark, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CEDRIC DARK: Thanks for having me on.

SUMMERS: So the surgeon general's advisory says that it's meant to call the American people's attention to an urgent public health issue. But Americans are already quite well aware of the effects of gun violence. I mean, the report itself even says that more than half of Americans worry about a loved one being hurt or being killed by guns. So just to start in practical terms, what does a report like this accomplish?

DARK: The biggest thing that the surgeon general is doing is by putting focus and putting a direct spotlight on this public health issue. So no matter how much the public is talking about it or certainly politicians, the surgeon general's report is really important for focusing the public's viewpoint on what it should be looking at. Think about the surgeon general's report on smoking and tobacco. It changed the paradigm and, for the next couple generations after that, allowed us to tackle the tobacco industry. So this is something that I think allows us to look at the cures to gun violence but, instead of through a political lens, through a scientific lens and a public health lens.

SUMMERS: Let's shift the conversation now to some of the policies that the surgeon general recommends, policies around guns themselves, things like requiring safe storage, universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons. What do you make of those types of recommendations?

DARK: So when I approach this report and I specifically look at the policy portions of it, I like to think about it the same way public health professionals think about any other disease process, and that's primary, secondary and tertiary prevention. So when it comes to primary prevention, we can talk about things like background checks, which essentially are trying to make sure that guns don't wind up in the hands of people that aren't supposed to have them in the first place. We know that if we fix that, that lives will be saved.

From a secondary prevention process, we're talking about things like once a gun is in a home, how can we make that gun safer - and so tragedy doesn't strike? And that's where safe storage comes into play. So if you do have a firearm at home, like I do, you can go ahead and lock it up, put on a trigger lock. You can put it in a safe. And then third, we have tertiary prevention, things like violence intervention programs. So someone - once someone's already been shot, how do you prevent that from happening again?

SUMMERS: I want to ask you a personal question because you are an emergency physician, but you are also a gun owner. So I'm hoping that you can talk a little bit about your decision to own a gun, but you are also advocating for some of these measures to prevent gun violence. And those are two things that some people may see as in conflict with one another.

DARK: Yeah, I don't see it as something that's in conflict. I live in Texas. Texas has a very strong gun culture here. My house was broken into when I first moved down here. My wife went to the store the next day, bought a couple guns and brought them home. Until then, I had never actually owned a firearm myself. But what we did was be responsible about it. We decided to go ahead and take courses so that we actually know how to use them and then, once we had a child, to actually put those firearms away so that our child doesn't have access to them.

And I know a lot of people listening might have different opinions on that. It's not my job as a physician to tell you what to think or how to run your house, but it is my job to tell you about risk. And I think this is why it's really important. The surgeon general is making the statement today so that people understand the true risks of having a firearm, and they can decide what they want to do on their own.

SUMMERS: I know that you are not a politician. You were not an elected official, but I want to know from you, do you believe that a report like the one that the surgeon general has just issued has any hope of changing the political conversation about guns in a way that the mass shootings that we have seen in this country, like in Sandy Hook, like in Uvalde, like in so many communities across this country, have not been able to?

DARK: I hope that it can. I think that when you talk about mass shootings, though, and we talk about things like assault weapons, which are mentioned in the report, as well, there's something where I think certain people can disagree on. What I'm hoping though is that the surgeon general's report allows us to have these conversations and take the politics out of it so that we can approach things from a more evidenced informed manner and figure out what works and put forth laws to save the most lives that we can.

SUMMERS: That was Dr. Cedric Dark. He's an emergency physician at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and author of an upcoming book called "Under The Gun." Dr. Dark, thank you.

DARK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.