The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors held a community forum Tuesday morning at 7:30 Pacific time. I watched it live. So poignant and so appalling. Board Chair James Ramos spoke of “…sadness and anger…support for victims” and pledged “safety for all employees.” Supervisor Lovinggood spoke of “seamless continuation of services” and a “focus on environmental strategies.” Supervisor Josei Gonzales spoke of county employees as family, their jobs not jobs, but careers.” She pointed to county hot lines, available counseling services.
Supervisor Janice Rutherford asserted that terrorism aims to make “ordinary acts” like shopping, attending school, going to church eating in a restaurant difficult. “Our employees were not soldiers, but they wound up on the front lines. We must protect the ordinary,” she intoned beautifully.
And security, “increased security…more guards…more guards with weapons…more training for guards…better access control…metal detectors..” And trauma assistance, “Healing stations…free counseling…” and more.
Doctors described the trauma team response, the work of triage, “entering the theatre,” getting the okay to go in, “making sure we had enough supplies, back ups, beds.” The doctors asked the community to “mourn for the victims…to be grateful for family and friends.”
All in all a sound appropriate initial response and so poignant, and yet, so appalling. Appalling because no one, not one, not even the Deputy Director for Environmental Health said one word about closing down the agent, the source of the toxin, the obscene flood of guns infecting our civic life blood. Yes, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: safety and first. Yes, this was a public mourning in which policy solutions may have been jarring, but…
“Environmental Health?” What environment, an environment only at work for county employees? The County Department of Health will protect its employees. But what about schools (Newtown, Virginia Tech), work (Fort Hood), movie theatres (Aurora), in places of worship (Charleston)? Is that not Public Health’s mandate –environmental health? Yes healing and treating the body wounds and psychological trauma, but, what about the work of identifying the virus, stopping the agent so others won’t die?
I’ve just returned from Canada. I was there for the first national planning of the NMN – the 15-city National Municipal Network to help prevent crime and violence. Canada and the U.S. crime patterns are roughly the same as ours here in America. That is until gun crimes are factored in.
This year Canada will record about 500 gun deaths. Some large US cities alone approach that number. 500 gun homicides in all of Canada. We are on track to have 37,000 gun deaths – homicides and suicides this year. That does not take into account the number of people shot, traumatized, disabled. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reports that every year over 108,000 people in America are shot in murders, assaults, suicides and suicide attempts, unintentional shootings or by police intervention. Of those, 32,514 people die while another 75,962 survive, wounded and they and their families forever changed.
On December 14th, the three-year anniversary of the Newtown shooting arrives. Millions will attend memorial services. Since Newtown, the nation has lost 90,000 lives to gun violence.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote that “More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on the battlefields of all the wars in American history.” From 1968 to the first eight months of 2015, gun-related deaths in America totaled 1,516,863. More than one and a half million!
Is this not a public health issue of epic proportion, a national crisis? If not, what is?
And so, San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and especially your Department of Public Health, you have the opportunity to transmute the excruciating pain you now experience into a region-wide strategy that both heals and rids your county of the toxins. You have the opportunity to lead your county, your state and even the nation to manifest the true mission of “public health.”
As cowardly public officials who tremble before the NRA refuse to lead us, let public health departments throughout the nation pick up the banner.