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The public health consequences of mass shootings

A line of people with the faces of Saturday's shooting victims on yellow posters.
Mike Desmond
Family members of Saturday's shooting victims stand next to posters with the faces of their loved ones on them, during a Tuesday vigil at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street in Buffalo.

New York State’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, says mass shootings — including the one in Buffalo over the weekend that killed 10 people — racism and the growth of extremist white supremacist theories all have consequences for public health.

Dr. Mary Bassett says public health officials have long discussed the consequences of violence.

“We in public health have long discussed violence as a public health issue, because it takes life, which makes it a concern to people in public health, and because it has pattern that we can discern at a population level and we can intervene at a population level," Bassett said. "In terms of the mass shooting in Buffalo, a white teenager, 18 years old, who had imbibed all this racist thinking around white supremacy, is in custody and has been charged with hate crimes, that's the right way to frame it. I'm really grateful to our governor, who has spoken plainly about the toxic impact of white supremacy in our society and its impact it's had on our bodies. I mean, this is people dying with bullets and these are preventable deaths. But we have many preventable deaths to which racism contributes excess risk alone.”

Bassett credits public health officials in Buffalo, who have organized alternative food distribution to a neighborhood that relied on just one supermarket for its food supply.

Dr. Mary Bassett says the geographies of our cities are rooted in a legacy of government policy.

The health commissioner, who is African American, said the targeting of the predominately black neighborhood by the alleged shooter stems from centuries of racism and discrimination in the nation.

“We talk about this Buffalo neighborhood. Why did this neighborhood look the way that it did? Well, that's rooted in history, too," she said. "And the fact that the geographies of our cities look the way that they do is not just some personal preference. It has a legacy in government policy and, in this case, the policy of redlining and other discriminatory practices. So when we start peeling back these horrible individual events and the tragic loss of life, we start seeing the many complex threads in our society the story takes us to.”

Bassett said health officials could be doing more.

“We in public health also acknowledge that we have work to do, too.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.