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Philadelphia community leaders, doctors applaud U.S. surgeon general declaring gun violence a public health crisis

Philadelphia community leaders say U.S. surgeon general's gun violence announcement is a win
Philadelphia community leaders say U.S. surgeon general's gun violence announcement is a win 02:32

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- In a first for the U.S. surgeon general's office, Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory declaring gun violence a public health crisis

"Gun violence is a public health crisis in our country that requires a public health solution," Murthy said during an interview on CBS This Morning on Tuesday.

In the advisory, Murthy honed in on the impact gun violence has had on Americans, particularly younger Americans. According to data in the advisory, firearms are the leading cause of death for people ages 1 to 19, surpassing motor vehicle accidents and drug overdoses. Murthy says he understands the challenges gun reform has faced but hopes people can see it through this lens. 

"My hope is that if we understand this as a 'kids' issue, that we will raise it on the priority list," Murthy said. "That we will see it not as a political issue, but as a public health issue that should concern all of us."


In a statement, Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker said in part: "Here in Philadelphia, we have witnessed a notable decrease in homicides and non-fatal shootings this year so far, a testament to the collaborative efforts of the Philadelphia Police Department, alongside our law enforcement partners, community advocates and public health officials. While this progress is encouraging, we recognize our work is far from complete. The Parker administration will not rest, and we must continue to implement and support comprehensive strategies that ensure public safety and address the root causes of gun violence."

Tuesday's announcement was a win for community leaders in Philadelphia who work in the realm of violence reduction, and something they say they've long awaited. 

"This is an exciting day," Michelle Kerr-Spry, of Mothers In Charge, said. "We have been working toward this for a very, very long time."

Kerr-Spry said while there is work to be done in keeping guns out of young people's hands, they also have to do more to change the mindset of these kids and teens when it comes to guns. 

"Young people think it's normal to have access to a gun. That is not normal," Kerr-Spry said.

In Philadelphia, gun violence numbers have trended down in 2024. Homicides have dropped 40%, according to police data, to their lowest level since 2016. Shooting incidents are down 34%, and shootings involving juveniles have fallen from 95 this time last year to 68 so far in 2024. But city officials and community leaders know they face some of their biggest challenges in the summer.

"It's very early in the process. We're only six months and the summer hasn't started yet," Philadelphia Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel said during an interview on the city's falling shooting numbers on June 3.

"Summertime, it's very challenging. Because we all know idle time is the devil's play toy," said Rickey Duncan, who is the founder and CEO of the NOMO Foundation.

The surgeon general's advisory also has a focus on the mental health aspect of gun violence, saying shootings have far-reaching impacts on victims, family members, witnesses and even entire communities. 

"This is an issue that's infiltrated the psyche of America," Murthy said.

It's something Duncan said he's seen around Philadelphia. 

"That shows by the playgrounds being empty and the rec centers and the population in our programs going down because a lot of people don't feel too safe with their young people going outside," Duncan said.

Community leaders said any approach to solving gun violence issues has to come with a plan for mental health and trauma support. They say for far too long, young people in particular have dealt with the fallout of persistent gun violence. 

"We need to look at the trauma that a lot of our young people live in, they live in this persistent traumatic state. And so their response is often very violent," Kerr-Spry said.

"The more we can provide resources, mental health resources, workforce development, financial literacy, and just activities for our young people to stay active and stay out the way, the better off we'll be," Duncan said.

The surgeon general's advisory doesn't come with any direct funding to address gun violence issues. But it does make recommendations for leaders. There are things from enhancing community support and education, to calls for banning assault weapons and instituting universal background checks. But community leaders say they hope this advisory can serve as a catalyst for change, similar to advisories in the 1960s for smoking and other issues throughout the years. 

"All of the work that was done around drunk driving started with the very same type of announcement. And then look what happened after that," Kerr-Spry said. 

Doctors in Philadelphia applaud surgeon general's decision

Emergency doctors on the front lines of gun violence in Philly applauded the surgeon general's announcement. They say the carnage caused by firearms is wide-reaching and they're desperate for help.

Gun violence is down in Philadelphia, according to police. But it doesn't feel like it in the emergency department at Temple University Hospital, according to trauma surgeon Amy Goldberg.

"It's still very busy," Goldberg said. "If it is your relative, your friend, then it's not going down enough." 

Philadelphia doctors react to U.S. surgeon general declaring gun violence a public health crisis 02:39

For years now, Goldberg has been calling gun violence a public health crisis, and she applauded the surgeon general for making it official. 

"We have to hope that actions come with that, you know, that first, it's educating people," Goldberg said. 

The public health crisis declaration comes with more than half of adults saying they or a family member have experienced a gun-related incident.

"There are the people who are directly affected, and then there's everyone around them who is significantly impacted by gun violence," said Dr. Ruth Abaya, who works at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "And so the impact is not just limited to those who are immediately injured."

Abaya said while guns are now killing a record number of children, there is even more emotional collateral damage that comes from being exposed to violence.  

Nearly 80% of adults say they stress about the possibility of a mass shooting, and half of the country's children are worried about a shooting in their school.

The surgeon general's report points to research from Philadelphia showing children who live close to shootings are more likely to seek emergency care for mental health concerns.

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