Down To The Dollars With Very Little Sense: Gun Violence Costs As A National Health Care Crisis
President Barack Obama recently lifted a 17-year drought in U.S. funding for research on gun violence, instructing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to increase its support for such work. But his request for Congress to approve $10 million for research on several aspects of violence prevention — the effects of video games, media images etc. — might meet some strong opposition.
Nevertheless, there has been a great deal of research that has already been conducted by states, colleges, universities and other organizations that calculate the cost and price we pay for our eerie worship of guns in this society.
More guns … more violence … more death
When we are told that more guns is the answer to the rash of mass shootings that we’ve endured, especially in the past year or so, it is to turn a blind eye to the actual data. Public health research has shown that firearms violence is directly related to firearms availability and density. What makes America more dangerous to live in than any other Western, industrialized nation is not our overall rate of violence, but our rates of deadly violence — which can be directly traced to gun availability.
In 2009 alone, more than 31,000 Americans died by gunfire: 18,735 in firearm suicides, 11,493 in firearm homicides, 554 in unintentional shootings and 232 in firearm deaths of unknown intent, according to the CDC. More than twice that number are treated in emergency rooms each year for nonfatal firearm injuries.
The U.S. consistently ranks lower than other developed countries in life expectancy and the disproportionate number of firearm deaths in the U.S. accounts for almost a third (27 percent) of this life expectancy gap.
Additionally, firearms are the second leading cause of traumatic death related to a purchased product in the United States and are the second most frequent cause of death overall for Americans ages 15 to 24. Since 1960, more than 1.3 million Americans have died in firearm suicides, homicides and unintentional injuries.
To further illustrate the high availability/high violence theory, access to guns affects the risk of death and firearm-related domestic violence. The presence of such weapons has been associated in America with high rates of suicide, accidental injury, homicide and domestic violence.
On average, guns kill or wound 276 people every day in America. Of those, 75 adults and nine children will die. In the U.S., there are over 100,000 injuries related to gun violence each year. Incredibly, more children die or are injured by guns each year in the United States than in all 26 industrialized nations combined.
Presence of a firearm in the home reportedly results in death or injury to household members or visitors at least 12 times more often than to an intruder. When the numbers are so striking, why are anti-gun safety forces so strident in their assertion that the answer to gun violence is more armed American citizens?
Gun violence and its impact by the numbers
In 2005, approximately 30,000 Americans died of gunshots and nearly 70,000 received emergency treatment for nonfatal wounds. Emergency facilities are constantly inundated by individuals that require trauma services. Medical care for these patients costs up to $4 billion per year. The overall economic cost due to these injuries in America, including health care, disability, unemployment and other intangibles is about $100 billion per year.
The incident-to-fatality rate for gunshot trauma is 30 percent, which is much higher than for other injuries; for example, death occurs following a shooting 18 times more often than from motorcycle accidents. A typical hospital stay, for example, for firearm-injured people is about two weeks’ duration and disability averages approximately six months.
Direct medical costs for gunshot wounds total more than $6 million a day. Nonfatal gunshot wounds are the leading source of uninsured hospital stays in the United States, with about half of the cost directly absorbed by the taxpayer.
According to the National Center for Disease Control, the cost of firearm fatalities is the highest of any injury-related death. The average cost of a gunshot-related death is $33,000, while gun-related injuries total over $300,000 for each occurrence.
Those who become debilitated or paralyzed and who suffer traumatic brain injuries tell the story of the costs we have accrued as a result of addiction to guns. U.S. lifetime medical costs for gunshot injuries total an estimated $2.3 billion.
And yet, the health care costs are not the only cost indicator that gun violence should cause us to be mindful of. Gun violence costs about 2.4 billion dollars annually to the criminal justice system in America, which is almost equal to all other crimes put together. Each homicide results in approximately $244,000 of incarceration expenses in the United States.
Are we any safer with more guns?
During 2002, the Children’s Defense Fund with the National Center for Health Statistics reported that 3,012 American children were killed in shootings and many more were injured. The most recent analysis of data from 23 industrialized nations shows that 87 percent of the children under age 15 killed by guns in these nations lived in the United States. The gun homicide rate in the United States for teens and young adults ages 15 to 24 was 42.7 times higher than the combined rate for the other nations.
The argument that somehow increasing firearm usage and preventing stronger gun laws is the key to end the butchering of our children, rings hollow in the face of such statistics. An estimated 34,387 children and teens suffered nonfatal gun injuries in 2008 and 2009 — this amounts to one child or teen injured every 31 minutes, 47 every day and 331 children and teens every week.
As we grapple to put the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown in greater perspective, we cannot let it escape our attention that the killing and wounding of our children is an all-too-common occurrence in our nation. Guns, additionally, make us more dangerous to ourselves as well. Self-inflicted gunshot suicides outnumber both homicides and fatal accidents combined, and are the most common method of committing suicide. Suicide, by the way, is also the leading cause of death among gun owners in the initial years of ownership.
This writer knows that it is usually a dodge when mental health is talked about in relation to gun safety. It is a diversion from addressing the far-too-easy access to firearms and the wholly unnecessary need for certain weapons and ammunition. Nevertheless, mental health does need to be a part of the discussion — but perhaps not in the manner widely believed.
What we consistently ignore is the psychological trauma to survivors and the impact that grief has on the quality of life after a shooting. In communities where individuals consistently witness gun violence, where guns are used to address conflict, it leaves deep and abiding psychological scars on a population.
Gun violence goes beyond the actual incident as people who witness such tragedy exhibit higher levels of prolonged personal grief and dysfunction and higher suicidal risks than their peers. If anything can be done to craft a better and more impactful understanding of gun safety, it should be attached to health care and the economy.
Let the deficit hawks on the right argue about saving $4.7 billion annually that the Public Services Research Institute says firearm homicide and assault cost federal, state and local governments; let those who claim to be pro-life dispute laws that would prevent the documented 5,285 US children in 2005 that were killed by gunshots, according to information collected for more than a full year by the Center for Disease Control. To put that number in greater context, no gunshot deaths of children occurred in Japan, 19 in Great Britain, 57 in Germany, 109 in France and 153 in Canada during the same time period.
In the Declaration of Independence, the first inalienable right that is mentioned is life. Shouldn’t our greatest efforts as a nation be geared toward the preservation of life? We can ascertain certain costs for gun violence in dollars and cents such as medical and court expenditures. Yet, how do we tabulate the expense of the empty chair at the dining room table, the nightmares that haunt the sleeping hours of little ones or the pain and suffering of communities as they struggle to pick up the pieces in the wake of a gun-related massacre?
What price will we ultimately pay if, by political will and policy, we as a society say that protecting guns is more important than protecting our citizens, is more important than protecting our children?
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