Gun violence in the United States has become a national public health crisis, the U.S. Surgeon General declared Tuesday.

“Today, for the first time in the history of our office, I am issuing a Surgeon General’s Advisory on firearm violence. It outlines the urgent threat firearm violence poses to the health and well-being of our country,” Dr. Vivek Murthy said in a news release announcing the new health advisory.

“As a doctor, I’ve seen the consequences of firearm violence up close,” he added. “These are moms and dads, sons and daughters, all of whom were robbed of their physical and mental health by senseless acts of violence.”

“Unfortunately, the problem has continued to grow. Fifty-four percent of adults in America report that they or family member have experienced a firearm-related incident, whether they’ve been personally threatened with or injured by a firearm, lost a family member, witnessed a shooting or shot a firearm in self-defense.”

Some Americans are harmed more than others, Murthy noted.

“Black individuals endure the highest rates of firearm homicides, while suicide rates are highest among veterans, older white individuals and younger American Indian or Alaska Native people,” he said. “What is especially devastating is how this has affected our children. Firearm violence has become the number one cause of death among children and adolescents, more than car accidents or drug overdoses.”

Health experts applauded the bold move.

“Pediatricians have long understood that gun violence is a public health threat to children, and that its impact on families and communities can be devastating and long-lasting,” American Academy of Pediatrics President Dr. Ben Hoffman said in the surgeon general’s news release. “The American Academy of Pediatrics welcomes the Surgeon General’s Advisory on Firearm Violence, which shines a light on why we must all come together to address this public health crisis.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Bruce Scott, president of the American Medical Association, described the toll that gun violence takes on those it strikes.

“Across the country, physicians everywhere treat patients and families afflicted by firearm violence,” Scott said in the surgeon general’s news release. “We see the physical and emotional harm firsthand, and we dread the too-often conversations with parents, spouses and even children in which we tell them their loved one did not make it. Firearm violence is indeed a public health crisis, and the data now show it touches the majority of U.S. adults. We applaud the Office of the Surgeon General for issuing this advisory and for outlining an evidence-based public health approach to addressing firearm violence.” 

Despite the backing of numerous health experts, the health advisory is sure to draw political fire: In it, Murthy calls for banning automatic rifles, introducing universal background checks for buying guns, regulating the industry, passing laws that would restrict their use in public spaces and penalizing people who fail to safely store their weapons.

None of those goals can be reached on a national level without legislation passed by Congress, which typically avoids gun control measures. Still, some state legislatures have passed or may consider some of the proposals, the Associated Press reported.

Murthy has already issued previous warnings about other troubling health trends in America, including social media use and loneliness.

As for gun violence, “it is now time for us to take this issue out of the realm of politics and put it in the realm of public health, the way we did with smoking more than a half century ago,” Murthy told the AP.

A 1964 report from the surgeon general that warned of the dangers of smoking prompted a drop in tobacco use and tighter regulations on the industry.

In addition to new gun regulations, Murthy called for an increase in gun violence research and for health care professionals to promote gun safety education for their patients.

More information

The American Public Health Association has more on gun violence.

SOURCES: U.S. Surgeon General, news release, June 25, 2024; Associated Press