CDC needs to break silence on gun violence, say African American health officials

Story highlights

  • African American health experts call on CDC to break silence on guns
  • They believe the silence may be due to fear of Congress evoking funds

(CNN)As an African-American man, Dr. Georges Benjamin says he feels like "an endangered species," due to gun violence claiming the lives of men his color disproportionately to their numbers.

Benjamin is executive director of the American Public Health Association, and he has a message for the nation's top public health official, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control: Stop your silence on guns.
    Frieden has spoken, written and tweeted prolifically on a wide range of health and safety issues during his six-year tenure at the CDC, but he's kept deafeningly silent on the issue of gun violence, the second-biggest killer of young people in the United States.
    His supporters call Frieden's silence a wise course of action, as powerful members of Congress aligned with the National Rifle Association may take away hundreds of millions of dollars in CDC funding if he utters even one word that could be construed as supporting gun control.
    But after explosive levels of gun violence in U.S. cities -- more than 2,000 victims this year in Chicago alone -- as well as the recent mass shootings in Orlando and Dallas, African-American public health leaders are coming forward to say Frieden should change course. They believe he could help save lives if he steps up and highlights the dangers of gun violence.
    "It's time to speak up," Benjamin said. "The CDC is a trusted organization, and the white coat is a very powerful tool."
    Benjamin and others say if Frieden broke his silence, it could encourage state and federal legislators to pass measures to decrease gun violence. Perhaps Congress would even give CDC money to study ways to prevent the violence -- funding that was taken away more than 20 years ago.
    "Tom Frieden has a platform, and he needs to use that platform," said Dr. Swannie Jett, president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
    Through a spokeswoman, Frieden declined to comment for this article.

    Divided by race

    As with many issues in the United States, black and white people experience gun violence very differently.
    According to an analysis of CDC data done by Columbia University researchers, black Americans are more than twice as likely to die from gun violence than white Americans. Between 2000 and 2010, the death rate from firearm-related injuries was more than 18.5 per 100,000 for blacks, and nine per 100,000 for whites.
    Several African-American public health leaders interviewed by CNN drew a parallel between Frieden's silence on guns and President Ronald Reagan's silence on AIDS in the 1980s as the disease killed tens of thousands of gay men.
    "I'm sure [Frieden] values African-American lives and the African-American community, but I think there's real damage in not taking a stand and effectively using his platform to reduce gun violence," Jett said.
    "[Frieden's] silence really sends a negative message in terms of how one values human lives," added Lovell Jones, executive director of the Health Disparities, Education, Awareneess, Research and Training Consortium, who recently wrote about gun violence and the value of black lives.
    Many public health leaders who are not African-American, however, are reluctant to criticize Frieden for his silence.
    By contrast, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has spoken out about gun violence, but he doesn't have the kind of bully pulpit that Frieden has -- Murthy's position is far less influential and his office has a relatively tiny budget.
    "Tom is a friend and a colleague and working on a lot of important issues, like Zika funding," Dr. Murthy said. "Each public health leader makes a decision about how they'll prioritize public health crises."
    Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner, has spoken out about gun violence, but said she understands that Frieden, who heads up a high-profile federal agency with a multi-billion dollar budget, is in a different position.
    "I can't even pretend to know the pressures that Dr. Frieden is under," she said.
    Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, is coauthor of the Columbia study on race and guns and recently wrote an article entitled "Too many dead: The need to reframe gun violence as a public health issue."
    Galea said it would help if Frieden lent his voice to the discussion, but understands why he doesn't.
    "I well appreciate the political pressures that CDC must be facing on this issue and see CDC's not speaking out [as] more a reflection of the extraordinary success of special-interest groups who hold our political discussion hostage around guns, than I see it as a shortcoming of CDC," Galea wrote in an email to CNN.

    CDC chased by "ghosts"?

    That pressure from special interest groups -- namely, the National Rifle Association -- is at the heart of the experts' disagreement about whether Frieden should speak up or stay silent.
    Congress has already taken away nearly all CDC funding for gun research. Such research "is fundamental to understanding the problem and developing scientifically sound solutions," according to a statement sent to CNN by CDC spokeswoman Erin Sykes.
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    Frieden's supporters say if he speaks up, Congress might shut down the entire CDC National Injury Prevention and Control Center. It's not a groundless idea -- a small group of lawmakers threatened to do just that in the 1990s, but their efforts ultimately failed.
    Black public health leaders question whether the CDC really needs to fear that Congress would shut down the Injury Prevention and Control Center, which funds research on car accidents, child abuse, prescription drug overdoses and other public health concerns.
    "There's a ghost there, but I'm not sure it's real," Benjamin said, referring to the threat from more than 20 years ago.
    And Jones agreed. "Dr. Frieden needs to call their bluff."
    The leaders believe the good that might come from Frieden speaking up outweighs the risk that may or may not exist.
    "We can't stop because of fear," said Apryl Brown, president of the American Public Health Association's Black Caucus of Health Workers. For her, the issue is more than theoretical.
    "I'm a member of the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church, and when our sister church in South Carolina was hit last year, my ministers knew their ministers. They were friends, and it gets intimate when your friends are hit," she said.
    "When you see your community affected and you're the one in position to speak up and take action, that's when it hits home."