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Panel: Gun violence in St. Louis is a public health crisis

(via Flickr/M Glasgow)

A panel of community organizers, anti-violence experts and Washington University professors are seeking solutions to reduce the number of shooting deaths by identifying gun violence as a public health crisis.

Gun violence hits the St. Louis region in a profound way. Here are just a few of the numbers: 

  • 157 homicides occurred in the city of St. Louis last year, many of them involving guns.
  • 57 patients with gunshot wounds were admitted to the Emergency Department at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in 2014 alone. 
  • 35 percent of households in the Midwest keep at least one gun in the home, according to the Pew Research Center.

The panel Tuesday evening is the first in a year-long effort by the school to find solutions to gun violence.

“One of the things we’ve noticed in the past few years is that the ages [of victims] are getting younger,” said Dr. Bo Kennedy, a pediatric emergency physician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Luckily, trauma care has advanced to where many children do survive gunshot wounds. But many live with the effects of their injuries long-term. 

“We need good, hard data to help us figure out, if this is why more are getting shot, what can we do to reduce that likelihood,” Kennedy said. 

Kennedy said accidental shooting deaths, access to guns and mental health must also be addressed to reduce the number of people killed by guns each year. 

Gun violence takes a significant toll on the people who witness shootings, lose a loved one or live in areas where shootings are common, said Washington University professor Darrell Hudson. It's a feeling he knows personally from his childhood, growing up in Detroit. 

“Violence is not just victimization and perpetration, but a vigilance of constantly being aware of your surroundings, and being scared — and rightfully concerned about — what could happen.”

The trauma of witnessing violence or living in fear of a shooting can have a profound effect on mental and physical health, Hudson said. In turn, that can impact a child’s ability to get an education, or an adult’s ability to work.

"It's not just about violence, it's not just about mental health. It's about these upstream things that are difficult to change. It's about opportunity and hope and value. It takes a lot of sectors working together," Hudson said. 

Dr. William Powderly, who organized the panel, said looking at gun violence as a public health issue is like looking at car accidents as a public health issue. He’s hopeful the strategy will make finding solutions easier.

“We have mandatory child seats, speed limits, more restrictions for driving under the influence. We’re more sensitized to using cell phones. These are all designed not to prevent people from driving a car, but making the experience of driving and going on the highway a safer one,” Powderly said. 

More information about Washington University's Gun Violence Initiative is available here

For more health-related news, follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB