As with COVID, we can fight gun violence as a public health crisis

Over the past six months, the public health strategy to administer COVID-19 vaccines equitably and efficiently has demanded complex thinking, and a range of complementary tools and approaches. Distributing the vaccine through many outlets – state vaccination centers, pharmacies, medical providers, mobile vaccine clinics and community health workers – is helping ensure all populations have access to shots. We must not allow this lesson to be lost as we face another deadly health crisis: our epidemic of gun violence.

New Mexico suffers the fourth-highest rate of gun violence in the nation – and 60% of New Mexico firearm deaths are suicides. In 2019, New Mexico lost 471 people to gun violence, 284 of them by suicide. As with COVID-19, longstanding social inequities mean the toll falls disproportionately on our Black, Brown and Native American communities. To turn the tide, we’ll have to ensure our efforts are equitable and reach communities most affected.

As we face the public health crisis of gun violence, New Mexico’s elected leaders should expand access to Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) and create a central office of gun violence prevention to ensure equitable ERPO implementation.

ERPOs allow for the temporary removal of firearms when individuals are at an elevated risk of violence. They provide a crucial cushion of time while longer-lasting solutions are sought for those at risk of harming themselves or others. Such laws can prevent self-harm, homicides and mass shootings. New Mexico is one of 19 states and the District of Columbia that have an ERPO law in effect.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has partnered with New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence as part of our Safer States Initiative to help expand New Mexico’s new ERPO law, enacted in May 2020, because we know these tragedies are as preventable as they are devastating. But there is one problem: the law has been used only five times in its first year.

This could be in part because New Mexico’s ERPO law stipulates that only law enforcement may request an extreme risk order from the courts, excluding family and health care professionals, the very people best positioned to know when an individual is at risk of both self-harm and interpersonal violence, from the process. This limitation makes this tool effectively unavailable to many New Mexicans, not least in those communities where distrust of law enforcement runs deep. New Mexico’s Legislature should expand ERPO petitioners so that more people have the time and space to find lasting solutions to whatever issue may drive them to pick up a gun.

Establishing a central office of gun violence prevention (OVP) is another important step to implementing ERPOs using a public health approach to gun violence prevention. An OVP would coordinate gun violence reduction efforts within the state, provide technical assistance for ERPO implementation, identify and grant funding to localities, and track data so we can keep improving the policy. Central to an OVP’s success in our proud majority-minority state will be ensuring its specific focus on racial equity.

Creating an OVP and expanding ERPO petitioners have enormous potential to save lives if we implement them equitably and efficiently. In a state that demonstrated a remarkable public health response to the pandemic, we’re more than confident New Mexicans can use the same approach to reduce gun violence.

We call on lawmakers in Santa Fe and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to expand the state’s ERPOs and establish an office of gun violence prevention. We have the power to save lives, but, as with any health crisis, it will require using all the best tools available to us.

New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence works with all levels of the community to prevent gun violence and make New Mexico a safer place. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is the nation’s oldest gun violence prevention organization.

 

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