Op-Ed

Tackling Gun Violence: A Public Health Challenge

DOH secretary says rapidly-spreading violence behaves like a contagious disease

News (courtesy NMDOH)

By Patrick M. Allen, New Mexico Health Department secretary

Tragedies are unfolding in our communities, and it’s time to address them head on. A 5-year-old girl died as bullets from a shooting entered her home. An 11-year-old boy lost his life leaving an Isotopes game after being caught in a hail of gunfire, a case of mistaken identity. Shockingly, two firearms were recently found on students at an Albuquerque high school. New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest rates of firearms-related deaths among children in the nation, and this crisis is only getting worse. So, what’s going on?

In simple terms, violence, especially gun violence, behaves like a contagious disease. It’s spreading rapidly across our state much like an epidemic. Dr. Gary Slutkin, from the University of Illinois at Chicago, made a compelling case in a 2013 paper that violence, like a virus, can pass from person to person. To tackle this issue, we need to act urgently and decisively.

The New Mexico Department of Health’s “Comprehensive Report on Gunshot Victims Presenting at Hospitals in New Mexico” paints a grim picture. Spanning over two decades, this report shows a worrying increase in firearms-related violent deaths and injuries. It reveals the staggering costs borne by our state in terms of healthcare spending and lives tragically cut short.

Imagine treating violence as if it were an infectious disease. Just as we study diseases’ origins to combat them effectively, we can apply the same approach to violence. We must understand how violence spreads—whether through exposure to trauma, substance abuse, or access to firearms. Identifying these pathways can help us pinpoint where to intervene and prevent future tragedies.

So, what can we do with this understanding? How do we address gun violence as the contagious disease it is?

Gun violence is a public health emergency.  We cannot afford to stand idly by while our fellow New Mexicans suffer from the consequences of this epidemic. We are acting with urgency to protect the health and safety of our residents.

Addressing gun violence requires a comprehensive approach; there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. During a disease outbreak, we try various strategies: infection control to curb the disease’s spread, new treatments to aid those who are sick, and support for families grappling with the aftermath. Importantly, if our first efforts don’t work, we adapt and explore new approaches. This adaptability is exactly what we need in the face of gun violence in New Mexico.

So, what public health tools are we using to combat this contagion that’s tragically claiming our young people? We’re implementing gun buy-back programs in Albuquerque, Española, and Las Cruces. These initiatives aim to remove firearms from circulation, reducing the risk of them falling into the wrong hands. We’re providing free trigger locks through community partners to help reduce the impact of accidental gun deaths and suicides. Additionally, we’re prioritizing treatment for individuals seeking help with substance use disorders, recognizing the role of addiction in fueling gun violence. We’re holding the state’s healthcare system accountable, ensuring prompt and adequate behavioral health treatment within 24 hours of an individual’s request. This is a vital step in addressing the root causes of gun violence and fostering healthier communities.

Furthermore, the order emphasizes the importance of network adequacy in the behavioral health sector. It, holds healthcare providers accountable for ensuring continual behavioral health network adequacy—meaning they have enough providers. This commitment reflects our determination to bolster mental health support and resources, recognizing their pivotal role in reducing violence.

But, challenges lie ahead, particularly in a state historically stretched thin in behavioral healthcare. To address this, the Human Services Department has introduced new data and monitoring requirements to ensure Managed Care Organizations comply with treatment standards and provide timely care.

Gun violence is a disease that is spreading uncontrollably across our state. It has become one of the leading causes of death among our young people. This should shock and deeply concern us all. This public health crisis calls for us to tap into the spirit of creativity that New Mexico is known for, to unite as a community, and to do everything in our power to halt the spread of this disease and protect the lives of our young people.


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