Examining Public Health Responses To Gun Violence NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Dr. Paul Nestadt, a psychiatrist who studies gun violence, about public health responses to gun violence — which President Biden has called an epidemic.

Examining Public Health Responses To Gun Violence

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Late Thursday, a gunman opened fire at an Indianapolis FedEx warehouse facility, killing at least eight people and injuring several others. Police believe the gunman also killed himself.

Here's a fraction of what also happened in the last 72 hours, according to the Gun Violence Archive. A total of four people were killed in gun violence in California, West Virginia, Rhode Island and Texas. A total of 20 people were injured by gun violence in many other states, including Kansas, Colorado, Michigan and Minneapolis. So that's where we're going to start the program today.

The president has called this a public health crisis and an international embarrassment. If that's the case, then what would be a public health response? To help us think about this, we've called Dr. Paul Nestadt once again. He's assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he is affiliated with the Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy. We last spoke with him about his research work related to suicide, which is actually, as he reminded us, the majority of gun deaths in this country.

Dr. Nestadt, thank you so much for joining us once again.

PAUL NESTADT: Well, thank you for having me back.

MARTIN: So before we jump into your sense of what solutions might be, I just wanted to ask, what was your reaction as a scholar in this area to the shooting in Indianapolis? Is there something that stood out to you?

NESTADT: Unfortunately, what stands out is just how frequently these things are happening and continue to happen. It's almost as if, you know, we're starting to just a little bit get back to normal after the pandemic. And it's reminding us that a big part of normal are these shootings.

MARTIN: If we were to look at this as a public health issue, I mean, we - obviously, you know, the politics starts immediately. People start talking about gun safety measures, gun control measures and so forth. But if we were to start talking about this as a public health crisis, what would that conversation look like?

NESTADT: When we think of something as a public health issue, we think about how to address it at a population level. And so that's why policy does become a big part of that response. Policy, government policy, whether it's state, local or federal, ends up the best way we have to intervene in situations like this, to affect people at a population level.

So some of the policies that can be passed that are starting to be looked at will ultimately be, I think, part of the solution. There's cultural changes, of course, but all those things follow from public health policy.

MARTIN: And give us just some sense of what some of those strategies might look like.

NESTADT: Well, there's a variety. I mean, I think that one that's been discussed a lot lately, especially because President Biden has brought it up again, is the idea of red flag laws, what in Maryland we call extreme risk protection orders. They're called different things in different states, but they're essentially laws where if someone might be a danger to themselves or others, and they have access to a gun, they can have that gun temporarily removed. That might be for 30 days or a year until the crisis passes.

And these laws have been shown to be very effective in preventing the most common causes of gun death, which is suicide. But they've also been shown to prevent mass shootings. There was a great study that Garen Wintemute did in California, looking at California's version of the red flag law finding that over about - I think it was a two-year period, it was - it had prevented at least 21 episodes that would have clearly become mass shooting incidents.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, it is remarkable how public health measures do become politicized in this country, like, for example, the wearing of a mask. I mean, wearing of a mask when you think you might be ill or when you've been exposed to someone who might be ill is a common courtesy in many parts of the world. It is not considered extraordinary, and yet in this country, for some reason, in some quarters, it has become.

But having said that, are there steps that people could take in their day to day lives, like wearing a mask, that would help the country confront this issue?

NESTADT: Well, I think one of the most important things, as with anything to try to change the world, is to be politically active on an individual level. If you find that the gun violence issue is something that you want to do something about, call your congressman. Call your senator. Past that, if you're a gun owner, it's very important that that gun is kept stored safely, that it's locked up, separate than ammunition.

A lot of these shootings come from when, for instance, a young person gets access to their parents' gun because it's not stored safely. Those kind of incidents are particularly tragic because you have to imagine what's going through the parents' heads in the aftermath when this has happened in their family. So just keeping guns stored safely is maybe the most important thing that any individual who's a gun owner can do.

MARTIN: That is Dr. Paul Nestadt, assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Dr. Nestadt, thank you so much for talking to us once again.

NESTADT: Thanks for having me.

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