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The toll of America's gun violence epidemic

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Gun violence, whether mass shootings, accidents or suicides, takes a seemingly incalculable toll on victims, their families and their friends. And two new studies show that the ripple effects of gun violence are deeper, wider and far costlier than previously known. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt on the huge downstream costs of America's gun violence epidemic.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: On one level, it's almost impossible to put a dollar figure on lives shattered by gun violence to try to measure the pain of having a loved one killed or seriously injured. But researchers using federal data say they're getting a much clearer picture of the stunning consequences of gun violence, including in a less well-studied area - the economic and health impacts of non-fatal gun injuries on survivors and their families.

ZIRUI SONG: Firearm deaths are staggering enough, tragic enough and shocking enough to take up most of the oxygen in the room.

WESTERVELT: Dr. Zirui Song is an associate professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School.

SONG: I think it takes an additional mental bandwidth to then dig into this vastly separate but related world of survivors of firearm injuries.

WESTERVELT: I caught up with Dr. Song while he was on a break from his rounds at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he practices internal medicine. In a study just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Dr. Song and colleagues show that as a direct result of a non-fatal firearm injury, there was a four-fold increase in health care spending and, the study says, a dramatic increase in other disorders that undermine a person's health and well-being.

SONG: In the first year after a non-fatal firearm injury, survivors experienced a 40% increase in physical pain or other forms of pain syndromes, a 50% increase in psychiatric disorders, and an 85% increase in substance-use disorders.

WESTERVELT: And the impact isn't just on those injured by bullets. The study shows family members of survivors, too, can carry huge physical and mental burdens.

SONG: Family members on average, including parents, siblings and children, experienced a 12% increase in psychiatric disorders. There is really an undercurrent of forgotten survivors whose own health and economic conditions are affected quite profoundly, even though they were lucky enough to survive.

WESTERVELT: The study is based on health care claims data, not hospital survey or discharge numbers, so Dr. Song believes that allows for a more nuanced and accurate look at spending than previous studies based on other types of data. A separate study out this week by Everytown for Gun Safety delves into the larger picture, examining the direct and indirect costs from all gun violence in America, fatal and non-fatal. Sarah Burd-Sharps is research director at the gun control advocacy group.

SARAH BURD-SHARPS: Looking at the economic consequence offers a wider lens for understanding just how extensive and expensive this crisis is. And this epidemic is costing our nation $557 billion annually.

WESTERVELT: 557 billion a year seems astonishing, but the group says it's looking at everything from the immediate cost at a shooting, such as the police response, investigation and ambulance services, to the long-term health care costs. It also includes things like a victim's lost earnings, the price of mental health care and more. The report also tries to calculate seemingly less tangible and hard-to-pin-down costs. It estimates society loses some 1.3 billion every day for, quote, "suffering and lost well-being of gun violence to victims and their families." Burd-Sharps argues that the true annual figure is likely higher.

BURD-SHARPS: This is honestly a very conservative estimate. It covers directly measurable costs. It doesn't cover things like the trauma of children who don't return to their school, the impact on businesses or on property values and taxes. It doesn't cover any of those wider reverberations.

WESTERVELT: Burd-Sharps is testifying before two House committee hearings this week on the financial impact of gun violence. She says she'll tell lawmakers the group is grateful for the recent federal action on guns, which includes incentives for states to pass red-flag laws and expanded background checks for those 18 to 21. But she says she'll also tell Congress much more is needed to fight this epidemic. Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.