Men and Firearms: Proven Public Health Interventions to Curb Violence

June 29, 2022 | Marcus Plescia, Lindsey Myers

In focus in the foreground, a hand holds up a white paper square, the center of the square has the shape of a handgun cut out. An out-of-focus-crowd is in the backgroundThe recent mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, and elsewhere across the country, have drawn renewed attention to firearm violence as a major public health issue in our nation. It’s a particularly important issue to consider during Men’s Health Month because men are disproportionately victims and perpetrators of firearm violence. Approximately 58% of firearm owners are men. Men represent 86% of firearm-related deaths and 87% of nonfatal firearm injuries.

While mass shootings are horrific, 54% firearm-related deaths are due to suicides, and 87% of firearm-related suicide deaths are among men. Firearms are used in more than half of intimate partner homicides, most of which are committed by men. CDC’s recent MMWR revealed that the 2020 firearm homicide rate in the U.S. was the highest recorded in 26 years, which underscores the need to implement strategies to reduce firearm injuries and deaths.

Interventions to address firearm violence are often perceived as controversial. But there is considerable common ground around this issue. Gun shop owners and members of “gun clubs” are concerned about the high levels of suicide and domestic violence amongst firearm owners and are willing to take action. Regardless of political party, all Americans want to feel safe and eliminate the threat of mass shootings.

ASTHO has reviewed and compiled evidence-based interventions to prevent firearm-related violence to use in our work supporting states and territories. A number of strategies are available for state and territorial health departments to expand their public health approaches to firearm-related violence depending on their stage of readiness to address this issue.

Develop a Comprehensive Public Health Approach

Every state can identify firearm violence as a public health issue and emphasize the need for a comprehensive approach that uses data-informed decision making and addresses risk and protective factors at multiple levels (individual, family, school, community, and societal). To accomplish this, states need to be able to access multiple data sources and improve data infrastructure to monitor violent injuries.

The National Violent Death Reporting System is currently funded in every state, but additional funding is needed to ensure states can fully implement the system across all their jurisdictions. Partnerships at the state and local levels with law enforcement, faith-based communities, workplaces, schools, civic groups, and gun-owner clubs can identify common agendas, middle ground, and ultimately change social norms. Finally, health departments can use data and timely communications to tie firearm-related deaths back to social determinants as we have done with many other public health issues.

Federal Policy Interventions

On June 25, President Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (S 2938) setting the stage of the first federal firearm legislation in decades. The law contains firearm safety measures, as well as funding to expand mental health, school safety, and telehealth resources. Key components of the law that align with the emerging evidence base for firearm injury prevention include:

  1. Funding to assist states in creating and administering laws that have sufficient due process protections that help ensure firearms are kept out of the hands of individuals whom a court has determined to be a significant danger to themselves or others.
  2. Closing loopholes in domestic violence regulations so that anyone who has been adjudicated for dating abuse would no longer be eligible to purchase or possess a firearm.
  3. Requiring a more thorough background review process for people between ages 18 and 21 who attempt to buy a firearm.
  4. Funding to enhance mental health services, enhance community-based violence prevention initiatives, improve treatment programs for children and adults who have experienced trauma, and support implementation of the 9-8-8 suicide and crisis lifeline. .

Other Approaches

Some state health departments can take policy and regulatory steps to address firearm violence. These include requiring background checks on all commercial firearm and ammunition sales, raising the age requirement to purchase semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21, or banning the sales of semi-automatic weapons altogether. The potential impact of these policies has not been well-studied, and much can be learned from the experience of states that have implemented them. Additionally, existing firearm violence prevention research suggests that policies such as mandating the safe and secure storage of firearms, lethal means safety counseling, and indirect strategies, such as decreasing the density of alcohol outlets and improving physical environments (e.g., making greener spaces or adding brighter streetlights), may be effective at reducing risk for firearm violence.

While men are disproportionally impacted by firearm injury and death, firearm violence has far-reaching consequences and is a public health issue. Interventions can be implemented to reduce the death and suffering associated with this issue and there is consensus for federal actions, including those recently enacted by Congress. Federal policies are important because they are far-reaching and comprehensive. However, as with most public health issues, our knowledge of what works and what should be expanded nationally draws from state and local actions and experience.