Gun violence is a public health crisis, US surgeon general declares

Senate hearing on youth mental health crisis, in Washington

By Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. surgeon general declared gun violence in the country a public health crisis on Tuesday, calling on Americans to act to prevent rising firearm-related deaths and their cascading effects, particularly on Black Americans, young Americans and other populations.

In the first-ever public health advisory on gun violence, the nation's top public health official, Vivek Murthy, outlined what he called devastating and far-reaching consequences to the public's well-being and called for more research funding, better mental health access and other steps such as secure storage to reduce harm.

"Firearm violence is an urgent public health crisis that has led to loss of life, unimaginable pain, and profound grief for far too many Americans," he said in a statement.

Murthy said the impact of gun violence spreads far beyond the staggering number - 50,000 a year - of lives lost. It impacts millions of people who have been shot and survived it, as well as those who have witnessed gun violence, lost family members or who learn about through the news.

In 2020, gun violence became the leading cause of death among U.S. children and adolescents, the report noted. The firearm mortality rate among youths in the U.S. is 11 times higher than in France, 36 times higher than in Germany and 121 times higher than in Japan, according to the advisory.

The rate of firearm-related deaths has been steadily rising, Murthy warned, with more than half of those in 2022 driven by suicides followed by homicides and accidental deaths.

Studies have shown the increase in firearm-related fatalities among U.S. youth has taken a disproportionate toll on Black communities.

Mass shootings, which draw outsized attention despite representing a small percentage of firearm-related deaths, have also increased in recent years. The country has seen more than 600 such incidents in each full year since 2020, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as involving at least four victims.

In television interviews, Murthy compared his latest effort to previous public health campaigns that targeted cigarette smoking and promoted seatbelt use.

"One of my goals here is to take out of the realm of politics and into the realm of public health," Murthy said on MSNBC.

But many of the solutions that the report recommended, such as expanding background checks and banning assault-style weapons, have little chance of becoming law, with Republican lawmakers in Congress staunchly opposed to virtually all gun limits as violations of the U.S. Constitution's guaranteed right to bear arms.

Murthy last year issued public health advisories on the harm that social media causes to young people's mental health and on the crisis of loneliness and isolation. Last week, he called for social media warning labels to protect adolescents.

Former congresswoman and gun shooting survivor Gabby Giffords, who founded the Giffords anti-gun violence organization after she was wounded in the head in 2011 during a mass shooting, called on policymakers and the U.S. government to heed the surgeon general's warning.

"I have seen firsthand how shootings are a major threat to Americans' lives and well-being, and our leaders must view the problem as the public health crisis it is," Giffords said in a statement.

The National Rifle Association decried the advisory as an "extension of the Biden administration's war on law-abiding gun owners."

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chicau and Nandita Bose in Washington and Chandni Shah in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax and Caroline Humer; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Chizu Nomiyama and Aurora Ellis)