Whether you believe guns kill people or people kill people, Americans are dying via guns at a higher rate than ever before, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. Sunday’s mass shooting that killed more than two dozen people at a Baptist church in Texas only underscores the epidemic.
But it’s not just guns that are ending the lives of thousands of Americans early. Other causes of death are going unaddressed as well. While the gun-death rate has climbed to about 12 in 100,000 people, drug overdose deaths have climbed to 20 out of 100,000 people.
Comparatively per 100,000 people, diabetes kills 25, cancer kills 185 and heart disease kills 196, according to the New York Times.
The comparison of gun deaths to these other killers, however, makes many people uncomfortable. From November 2013 to December 2014, the Obama administration nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy as U.S. Surgeon General was held up in Congress owing to a controversial 2012 tweet from the physician:
Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA. Guns are a health care issue. #debatehealth
— Vivek Murthy (@vivek_murthy) October 17, 2012
While he eventually served two years as the country’s top health care administrator, Murthy was relieved of his position in April. He ultimately avoided discussing gun violence as a public health issue during his time as surgeon general.
But with more than half of America’s gun deaths attributable to suicide, the country continues to avoid responsible discussions of how more gun deaths could be prevented. That goes for mass shootings, accidental shootings, suicides or tragic combinations thereof.
Inaction on causes of death
For more information on why Oklahoma’s public health groups have not placed more emphasis on gun deaths as a health issue, read this NewsOK story from 2016.
But Oklahoma’s inaction on preventing gun deaths is less startling than its inaction on preventing the other conditions listed above that kill twice as many people (diabetes) or 16 times as many people (heart disease).
Concerning the chronic conditions of diabetes and heart disease, Oklahoma would inevitably see a reduction in deaths if state leaders found a way to ensure more citizens had dependable access to care. We have published several perspectives on how Oklahoma’s decision not to accept Medicaid expansion dollars has prevented lower-income families from receiving life-changing primary care.
Yet, in 2017, the Oklahoma Legislature has not considered expanding Medicaid because it apparently cannot even achieve its most basic public health task: the allocation of adequate funds for state health agencies.
Simultaneously, the Oklahoma State Department of Health has been exposed for pernicious and potentially criminal financial mismanagement, all the while spending money on confusing ad campaigns that do little to improve anyone’s life other than those who receive the state contract:
That is a mighty fine use of tax dollars, as it achieves the rare Public Health Ineptitude double-whammy: 1) pissing off HIV-prevention advocates, and 2) confusing the hell out of everyone else.
The need to lead
Asking whether Oklahoma or national politics will mellow enough for reasonable conversations about causes of death seems like an awfully hopeful question with an easily cynical answer.
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But what seems painfully missing in the public health world is the same thing missing in the political world: unwavering leadership.
With a little of that, bureaucrats and politicians alike might be able to stem the rise of gun deaths and other preventable casualties.
If, however, it remains easier and more gratifying for people to engage in political demagoguery, no progress will be made in addressing top causes of death.