There are few topics in our country as politically charged as guns. But one Seattle doctor has been visiting schools to educate students about gun safety as a public health issue instead of a political one.
Dr. Gregory Engel has worked in Africa, where public health crises include malaria and Ebola. In the U.S., gun violence is a big threat to public health, which is why he recently visited a freshman health class at Roosevelt High School in north Seattle.
First, he asked for a show of hands.
“I’m going to start by asking how many people here know someone who’s been affected by gun violence in some way?” Engel said.
About one third of the students’ hands went up, a percentage that Engel said is typical for the classes he’s visited. So far, in the past two years, he’s given his presentation to about 1,000 students, mostly in Seattle.
Engel sticks to information and safety tips and tries to steer clear of the political debate around guns.
For example, he tells the students that even though mass shootings get most of the headlines, suicides account for the majority of gun deaths in the U.S.
“Of all those who attempt suicide, nine percent die. But when you talk about people attempting suicide with a gun, 85 percent of those people die,” he said. “I’m an emergency room physician and I have never treated a patient who comes in with a suicide attempt from a gun. They always go straight to the morgue.”
This is important for the students to know, Engel said, because suicide is often an impulsive act and teens are at high risk. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth aged 10 to 24 years old in Washington state.
In addition to statistics, Engel gave the students information about how to stay safe from gun violence and gun accidents. For example, firearms should be kept locked up. If students go to a friend’s house, they should ask whether there’s a gun in the house. And he said they should model gun safety to their peers as well.
Engel said he knows guns can be an emotional topic, but he said physicians should be addressing this.
“Doctors – I think we have a little cachet. We put the white coat on, I think we can say, `Look, this is about health. This is about health in Arkansas as well as in Washington,’” he said. “People are dying everywhere. And we all have a stake in safety.”
Engel said he hopes to get more doctors involved in giving talks like this and is working on getting the lessons started in Tacoma and Portland.