Northwell Health, New York state’s largest health care provider, has been a leader among organizations trying to reduce gun-related violence in the United States. In 2020, it created a center that’s dedicated to that effort. In this article, its CEO and the head of the center offer five steps that leaders of all organizations can take to help address this public health crisis.
As leaders at Northwell Health, New York state’s largest health care provider, we’ve seen mass shootings and other random acts of gun violence become deadlier and more frequent. In 2021, the United States experienced more firearm-related deaths than any year on record — 48,832 to be exact, according to provisional data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Firearms are now the leading cause of death among children and adolescents. Across our own health system, we’ve already seen more firearm injured patients this year than any other in our history. While our nation struggles to find solutions to this epidemic, hospitals, health systems, businesses, and all other types of organizations have a responsibility to take an active role in reducing gun violence in America.
The gun safety legislation approved by Congress and signed into law by President Biden in June (known as the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act) was certainly a welcome first step. But there’s still much work that must be done to reverse the continuing spike of firearm injuries — whether it be firearm-related homicides and violence, suicides, unintentional injuries, or mass shootings — that are plaguing communities.
The only way that’s going to happen is if members of the business community and other sectors recognize gun violence as the public health crisis that it is. Here are five steps that leaders of organizations can take right now to help prevent gun violence for the sake of their communities, consumers, and employees:
1. Create a dedicated group and assign a respected manager to lead it.
This is an approach embraced by Northwell and a growing number of other health systems and corporations nationwide. In 2020, we created a Center for Gun Violence Prevention to use data-driven strategies to chart a public health approach to gun violence prevention and lead our efforts across health care and community settings to address the underlying causes of gun violence in the New York area and beyond. One of us (Chethan Sathya) was appointed to head it because of his experience as a pediatric trauma surgeon who has treated many children with gunshot wounds and his passion for pursuing prevention efforts.
Creating a dedicated unit headed by a committed frontline champion and supported by a passionate C-Suite leader — one who is ideally already engaged with local community and business leaders — demonstrates an organizational commitment to address this public health crisis. It empowers employees to have open dialogue and share experiences, lead prevention efforts in their own communities, and become agents of change throughout their own institution. This works wonders in inspiring people to find common ground and support practical solutions, rather than engaging in Second Amendment debates mired in politics.
2. Choose a focus.
Depending on your organization’s employee makeup and a community assessment of the type of gun violence most prevalent in your area, it may make sense to focus on one type of firearm injury — such as firearm homicide and violence, suicide, or unintentional injury — or a particular age group.
One candidate to consider is gun violence affecting children and adolescents, which has surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death for children in America. According to the most recent finalized data, all firearm-related deaths in the United States totaled 45,222 in 2020, a 13.9% increase from 2019, while those of children and adolescents (persons up to 19 years of age) skyrocketed by 29.5%. This public health crisis is having an especially devastating effect on Black children and adolescents.
In addition to being less polarizing politically, focusing on gun violence affecting young people gives organizations the opportunity to find common ground with parents from all communities and interact with young people in ways that can make a real difference.
Investments in community violence intervention and programs that address inequity and social determinants of health such as employment and food insecurity can have a big impact. These initiatives can help break the cycle of violence by helping young people get on a better path — where they can avoid becoming victims or instigators of gun violence.
Another initiative that can make a major difference is one aimed at getting more gun owners to store their weapons safely, significantly reducing the risk of firearm injury among children and family members in the household. It’s estimated that 4.6 million children in the United States live in homes with at least one loaded and unlocked gun. Eight American children are killed or injured every single day with an unsecured firearm. And 80% of the guns used in mass shootings committed by children under the age of 18 are unsecured weapons owned by parents, relatives, or friends. Numerous studies conducted over several decades have shown that access to unsecured firearms in the household substantially increases the risk of firearm injury and death.
3. Educate and screen your employees.
Employee education can be a powerful means to reduce gun violence among your own employees and the community at large. In our health system, we not only educate our employees about gun safety; we also screen our patients who may be at risk of gun violence in the communities where they live and work and provide preventative resources when needed.
With the help of a $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, clinical team members at three Northwell hospitals are screening and counseling all patients who have access to firearms on safe storage practices, providing them with gun locks, and connecting those living in communities with high risk of firearm violence to community services aimed at keeping them safe and out of trouble. You can do the same with your employees.
We also encourage you to include a training module on gun safety and firearm-violence prevention during the onboarding process or and in other training programs. Given that there are 400 million guns in America, the more education we do about safe firearm storage, responsible gun ownership, and ways to prevent firearm violence the better.
Work closely with your human resources leaders to develop materials for employees and a corporate strategy to respond after gun violence occurs locally. They include information on the following:
- Mental health resources (e.g., 9-8-8 suicide and crisis lifeline) and referrals for the trauma that results from gun violence or exposure to it (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, substance use)
- What to do in a situation where there is an active shooter
- Ways to prevent workplace violence
- Social supports that help employees in times of need or distress and deal with mitigating existing inequities such as programs focused on food security, violence prevention, childcare, and housing
- Information on how to obtain an extreme risk order (aka “red flag” laws) that allow family members and law enforcement to temporarily restrict weapons from loved ones who are at risk of harm to self or others
4. Collaborate with local stakeholders.
If your organization has the resources, support local groups that are trying to reduce gun violence. If your organization is in a city, chances are there are community violence intervention (CVI) programs. They work directly with people who are at risk of committing gun violence or becoming victims of it. Such personalized, high-touch support and interaction can interrupt cycles of conflict that drive a significant portion of gun violence. CVIs also serve as a bridge between hospitals and the communities — which is important since hospitals can screen patients to identify those at risk of suffering firearms-related injuries and can provide preventative resources.
If you want to also focus on promoting firearm safety and safe storage practices, there are many groups you can work with. They include law enforcement, health care, mental health organizations, responsible gun owners, advocacy groups, schools, and government — all of whom often have diverse initiatives focused on firearm safety in the community.
5. Leverage your leadership position in your organization and communities.
Just as leaders of private and public sector organizations helped mitigate the impact of Covid-19, you can help support public health campaigns to reduce gun violence. You can talk about this issue with your employees and peers, in public appearances, and on social media. You can advocate for policy changes rooted in public health principles like safe storage and violence intervention, and you can support the need for more research funding. Without better data and better research, we will never be able to make meaningful progress on curbing this epidemic. And by taking a public stance, you can help reframe gun violence as an apolitical public health issue.
We strongly believe that the most effective public health solutions to gun violence must come from the federal government in the form of universal background checks, a ban on weapons of war, safe-storage requirements, research funding, and investments in trauma-informed care and mental health. That said, every private and public sector organization has a part to play in curbing this epidemic.
If leaders of corporations and other large organizations decide that the needless bloodshed ravaging the United States every day is unacceptable, they can help turn the tide. As health care leaders, every ounce of our effort goes into saving lives and helping people live healthy and safely. We want and need broad-based support. Please join us.