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From David’s Desk

Article David A. Young, PhD, MPH, Director, Behavioral Health and Recovery Services

I began writing this column early in February, intending to focus on Black History Month and to highlight a few countywide events and activities. Then the shootings occurred in Parkland, and the world’s attention turned to yet another gun violence tragedy.

As public health officials we naturally view these events through a health and safety lens. As the director of a county behavioral health system of care, it is my responsibility to identify factors that impact the health and well-being of people living in our community.

Mass school shootings are especially heart-wrenching because schools are supposed to be safe havens where kids can focus on learning. But as these events remind us, schools are actually a microcosm of our larger society. We cannot expect to make schools safer without addressing risk factors that occur in the community at large. Gun violence is a major public health risk factor, especially for certain groups.

According to the CDC, approximately 33,000 people in the U.S. die from gunshot wounds each year. This has been tending upward in recent years. Suicide accounts for 63 percent of these deaths, and about 35 percent are homicides (the remaining cases are accidents, lethal shooting by law enforcement or undetermined).

As of March 7, there have been 2,595 deaths by gunshot this year. 106 of those were children under 12 yrs. old, and 494 were teens 13-17 yrs. old. When the data is broken down by race, white persons account for only 19 percent of homicides; for whites, 77 percent of deaths are from suicide. But for African-Americans 82 percent of deaths are homicides and 14 percent are suicides. Our young African-American young men are most at risk of gun related deaths with 89 per 100,000 dying each year, twice the rate of young white men. That rate is higher than the murder rate in Honduras, which is considered the most dangerous, non-wartime country in the world – at its peak in 2011, Honduras’ murder rate, mostly from firearms, was 88.5 deaths per 100,000 people.

Fortunately, San Mateo County has fared much better than other parts of the country and other parts of the Bay Area with regard to gun violence. California and our county’s stricter gun laws on sales and carrying a firearm contribute to lower gun deaths compared to other parts of the country. However, sadly we do continue to experience shooting deaths in the county. The most recent victims were two young adults killed in Daly City last week.

Of course, there are multiple complex factors that contribute to community violence and the use of guns. But in a society where we have tremendous resources yet extraordinary inequities, we must learn to understand health issues in the context of social justice in our larger society. I am dedicated to pursuing solutions and ask you to join me in developing them to ensure a healthy future for our youth.