Emotion has driven much of the country's gun debate, but Dr. Stephen Hargarten says we should set aside tears and anger and focus on data. The professor and director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin has studied gun violence for more than 25 years and believes a solution lies in treating it as a public-heath crisis.
Tell us about your work and how it relates to gun violence. You think about when a bullet enters a person, it leads to bleeding and it leads to tearing of tissues and organ damage failure. It pulls in health care workers such as myself and others across the state and results in intensive care unit admissions and surgical care, operating room expenses and it may result in death or personal disability. It’s a biosocial disease.
What are you working on right now? We’re currently looking at patterns of firearm deaths and looking at the backgrounds of the individuals linked with these events. We’re hoping to look at translating projects that have shown to be effective in reducing gun violence in other cities and countries and looking at how understanding the patterns of assaults in a community can lead to a better understanding of prevention strategies by community organizations, law enforcement, public health and schools. A lot of assault victims [seek treatment at] emergency departments across the state of Wisconsin and are not reported to police or to public health or to schools. Emergency departments are well positioned to inform the pattern of assaults that are occurring in a defined geographic community that can lead to evidence-based prevention strategies.
Is there anything you’re looking at in terms of mass shootings? I think those are the tragic consequences that are getting a lot of attention and deservedly so. But when you think about how we can do a better job of investigating those tragedies [the reality is] we’re currently not doing that … So think about if we have a mass shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek. Who investigated that from a public health perspective? It wasn’t. So we don’t know enough about that event. We do know the causes—this gentleman was involved, there was a certain gun and so forth—but we don’t know some of the extensive background and place that in context with the next mass shooting and the next mass shooting that results in patterns that we can better understand. And right now there is no national effort to better understand these dramatic, tragic events.
The National Rifle Association has said that some research ends up being politicized. Can an agency be created to investigate that doesn’t get political? Let’s be clear about this as a biosocial disease burden. The NRA is an organization dedicated to safety and marksmanship. This is not a discussion that involves the NRA; this is a discussion that involves public health and people’s lives. For us to recognize that this disease burden ... has political elements ... is realistic and we need to address the political elements of this disease.
What data would help policymakers make decisions on gun violence issues? I think we can do and should do a better job about where [those already in jail for gun-related offenses] are getting their guns. We’ve got some research, but if it’s done on a regular basis with the Department of Corrections, perhaps that’s a good initial example of getting information that helps policymakers better understand whether strengthening criminal background checks might have an impact.
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