Public Health

AMA task force to confront “health care crisis” of gun violence

Marc Zarefsky , Contributing News Writer

Family physician Gerald E. Harmon, MD, knows from painful experience the consequences of gun violence. Last year, two long-time patients of Dr. Harmon’s intentionally harmed themselves with self-inflicted gunshot wounds. With hindsight, Dr. Harmon wonders if there was more he could have done.

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"I knew they were having emotional crises," said Dr. Harmon, the AMA’s immediate past president. He wonders whether he could "have been more involved."

The AMA is stepping up its own involvement, forming a task force focused on firearm-violence prevention as directed by the AMA House of Delegates.

Dr. Harmon talked about the task force and how the AMA advocates to prevent gun violence and increase gun safety during a recent episode of “AMA Update.”

Delegates declared gun-related violence a public health crisis in 2016, yet high numbers of deaths and injuries caused by firearms remain. More than 45,000 people in the United States died of gun-related injuries in 2020.

"If we've learned anything over the past six years, we've learned that firearm-related injury and death is a public health problem that can affect everybody," Dr. Harmon said. "It's pervasive. It's systemic. It requires a comprehensive public health response and a solution to it."

Dr. Harmon hopes the newly formed task force can contribute to that response. The task force will focus on:

  • Collaborating with industry, state and specialty societies to increase engagement related to firearm safety
  • Providing evidence-based firearm violence interruption programs in communities, schools, hospitals and health systems.
  • Reporting back to the House of Delegates with updates on legislation, regulation, and litigation focused on preventing gun violence at the local, state, and federal levels. 

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Those initiatives build on the latest policies that try to combat gun violence that delegates adopted last year, including supporting more research; ensuring active-shooter and live-crisis drills take into account the mental health of children; regulating ghost guns; and advocating for warning labels on ammunition packages.

The House of Delegates has adopted more than 30 policy recommendations to reduce firearm violence, trauma, injury and death in the last two decades, Dr. Harmon said.

"We need to make sure we advertise, we disseminate and we educate the public," he said. "We educate our regulators and educate our physicians and health care workers about what we need to be doing."

Dr. Harmon has heard critics, including other doctors, say physicians don't belong in a conversation about gun violence—that they should "just stick to medicine."

He doesn’t see it that way.

"This is a health care crisis," Dr. Harmon said.

Some physicians may feel uncomfortable addressing the topic with patients, Dr. Harmon said. They can learn how to broach these delicate conversations with the AMA Ed Hub™ course, “The Physician's Role in Promoting Firearm Safety.”

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The course helps physicians:

  • Describe the epidemiology of firearm morbidity and mortality in the U.S.
  • Recognize common risk factors that elevate the potential for firearm injury.
  • Identify barriers to communicating with patients about firearm safety.
  • Determine practical approaches to prepare for firearm safety counseling.
  • Effectively communicate how to reduce the risk of firearm injury and death.

"Physicians are at the front lines," Dr. Harmon said. "It's not only trauma surgeons in emergency rooms. It's physicians like me in family medicine and in rural America and all across America. I'd argue that not only do physicians belong in this conversation, but they need to be part of the solution."

AMA Update” covers health care topics affecting the lives of physicians and patients. Hear from physicians and experts on public health, advocacy issues, scope of practice and more—because who’s doing the talking matters. You can catch every episode by subscribing to the AMA’s YouTube channel or the audio-only podcast version, which also features educational presentations and in-depth discussions.