Faculty React to Surgeon General Report Naming Gun Violence as a Public Health Crisis

June 26, 2024

On Tuesday, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared gun violence an urgent public health crisis in a 39-page advisory report which also calls for new research and prevention of gun violence in the U.S. The report cites research by Columbia Mailman faculty and praises the efforts of researchers, other experts, and leaders “who work tirelessly each day to protect families and communities from the trauma and suffering that have become all too common in our country.”

Among those heralding the new report were Columbia Mailman researchers who study gun violence prevention as members of Columbia SURGE (Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence). SURGE is a university-wide research collaborative that examines topics such as ways to prevent gun violence in schools, firearm regulation and the flow of firearms across state lines, child mental health related to gun violence exposure, mass shootings, and more.

“This is a pivotal advisory report and shows that, despite record tragedies in U.S. gun violence these past years, we are potentially turning a corner,” says Charles Branas, Gelman Professor and Chair of Epidemiology, who has researched gun violence and ways to prevent it for more than two decades. “The 1964 Surgeon General report on tobacco fundamentally signaled the beginning of a major decline in lung cancer in the U.S. This report on gun violence hopefully is parallel to that, but we need to make best use of and build on what is in it.”

“The advisory is informed by critical research in this space and highlights the enormous burden and impacts that gun violence has on communities across the nation and on individuals across the life course—and importantly the solutions we should be taking to reduce this toll,” says Sonali Rajan, a professor in the Department of Health Studies & Applied Educational Psychology at Teacher’s College with a dual appointment at Columbia Mailman, as well as the inaugural president of the Research Society for the Prevention of Firearm-Related Harms. “It’s imperative we take every step possible to improve safety and well-being for all and this advisory is a significant step in the right direction.”

The new report cites multiple peer-reviewed studies by Columbia Mailman faculty. A 2023 paper in JAMA Surgery led by Paul Reeping—then a doctoral candidate in Epidemiology—and co-authored by Branas found that gun suicides outnumber gun homicides in the U.S., and the risk of gun suicides in the most rural counties exceeds the risk of gun homicides in the most urban U.S. counties. A 2022 paper in Adolescent Research Review co-authored by Rajan provided a systematic review of evidence on the detrimental effects of indirect exposure to community gun violence among low-income urban youth in the U.S. (Marni Sommer, professor of sociomedical sciences, and Columbia Mailman alumna Pilar Bancalari, MPH ’21, are among other co-authors). A 2020 paper in JAMA Internal Medicine co-authored by Christopher Morrison, assistant professor of epidemiology, found that nonfatal firearm injuries are more than twice as prevalent as deaths from firearm injury. Other original research works by Columbia faculty were included in the scientific reviews prioritized in the report.

As recently as a decade ago, federally-funded research on the prevention of gun violence in the United States was nearly non-existent, even in the face of escalating deaths and injuries from firearms, including tragic mass shootings like Columbine and Sandy Hook. Over the last few years, the first dedicated federal funding has been allocated to gun violence research. Meanwhile, researchers who study the topic have organized and networked, including through the creation of SURGE and the Research Society for the Prevention of Firearm-Related Harms, the latter of which has met twice since launching in 2022. At a webinar last fall, Ted Alcorn, who teaches a course on gun violence at Columbia Mailman, noted that even a few years ago, “the number of career scientists working on this topic could fit around a conference room table, and now there is a whole conference full of scientists focused on firearm-related harms.”

Even so, federal support for research into gun violence prevention is only a fraction of the level of funding provided for comparable public health crises. Looking ahead, Branas, whose own research examines interventions that improve the urban built environment to reduce gun violence, among other topics, points to the need for a major influx of new funding for research of the kind the Surgeon General called for.

“We can’t answer moonshot-level gun violence research questions without a moonshot level of resources,” Branas says. “Opportunities for greater research investment include programs that change fundamental structural determinants of gun violence, school and peri-school gun violence prevention initiatives, whether and what type of hospital-based violence interventions work, and a deeper dive into gun owner personal safety, consumer product safety, and testing of personalized firearms.”