Jun. 29 2016

Injuries, Including Those Caused by Guns, Are Preventable

Conference Discusses How to Reduce Avoidable Harms

Fate does not dictate when or where injuries will occur. They’re predictable and preventable, according to Guohua Li, founding director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention and interim chair of Epidemiology who spoke at a recent injury conference at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. 

Injuries are “the leading cause of death and disability in children and young adults worldwide,” he said.

And suicide is the world’s number-one cause of injury death. It’s much more common than homicide, even when firearms enter the equation. Approximately 10,000 Americans will be killed in gun murders this year – but twice as many will die from suicide

Mass shootings are especially rare – though that’s difficult to keep in mind while still reeling from the attack on an Orlando, FL nightclub that killed 49 people just days before the fourth annual meeting of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention took place.

At the recent injury conference, keynote speaker David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, addressed the audience’s solemn mood directly in his talk, adding “We need much better data on gun violence.”

Without good data, much of what we think we know about guns, suicide, and murder could be wrong. Many people assume that those who want to kill themselves will find a way – that their minds are made up and something as simple as not having the tools for their demise readily available couldn’t possibly affect the outcome. That assumption, Hemenway said, is misguided.        

The research shows that suicides rates fell significantly when pesticides were made less toxic in Sri Lanka, when the carbon monoxide levels in gas for stoves were lowered in the UK, and when armed forces throughout the world stopped allowing soldiers to take their guns home on weekends, said Hemenway at the conference.

Gun ownership makes it easy to kill yourself – a gun in the home is associated with a suicide rate that is three times higher than average – and states with more guns have more suicides, he added.

Contrary to popular thinking, suicides probably aren’t well planned and those who kill themselves likely wouldn’t have had the energy to overcome many obstacles, said Hemenway. When those who have attempted suicide are surveyed, nearly all report that they decided to kill themselves less than 10 minutes before acting.

The good news is that if public health advocates can make the tools that people use to end their lives less available or less lethal, suicides will plummet.  

The bad news, of course, is that the feasibility of putting this plan into effect may be low – gun control, in particular is a hot button political issue.

Hemenway did offer one simple, life-saving solution that can be enacted at the individual level: If someone you know seems sad, angry, or depressed, offer to ‘babysit’ his or her gun. Doing so, could prevent a suicide or murder.

Another speaker at the event, Ted R. Miller, principal research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said the average gun causes 695 dollars worth of injuries each year. All injuries combined cost the U.S. about $2.8 trillion annually, he added.

By Kathryn Gerlach,
Epidemiology