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NH’s largest health system calls for more action on gun safety after Maine shooting

Leaders at Dartmouth Health, which includes Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, are calling for more action to prevent gun deaths after last month's mass shooting in Maine.
Alison Quantz for NHPR
Leaders at Dartmouth Health, which includes Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, are calling for more action to prevent gun deaths after last month's mass shooting in Maine.

New Hampshire’s largest health system is calling for more action on gun safety after last month’s mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine.

In an op-ed published by some New Hampshire news outlets last week, leaders at Dartmouth Health said preventing gun deaths should be seen as a public health issue – not a political one.

“As health systems, sometimes we're the only public health provider,” Dr. Joanne Conroy, Dartmouth Health’s president and CEO, told NHPR. “That is a group can actually stand up and say, ‘We need to have different solutions.’ ”

New Hampshire has lower rates of gun deaths than the country as a whole. But the vast majority of those deaths are suicides, which killed an average of 125 Granite Staters per year between 2017 and 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New Hampshire’s rates of gun suicide were higher than the national average in most of those years.

In the op-ed, Conroy and Dr. Keith Loud – the physician-in-chief at Dartmouth Health Children’s – write that health care providers and responsible gun owners have a role to play in reducing both suicides and accidental injuries from guns.

Dartmouth’s pediatric providers, for instance, talk to families about safe gun-storage practices and give out free cable locks, to reduce the risk a child will harm themselves with an unsecured firearm.

“But it will take more than responsible gun owners and health systems like Dartmouth Health to prevent the next tragedy, and sadly, we in northern New England have now been called to lend our voice to the chorus,” they write.

Conroy said Dartmouth is willing to throw its support behind evidence-based legislation to reduce gun violence. She declined to say what specific measures the health system would back.

“We would advocate for anything that we thought was going to actually protect our kids and protect our communities,” she said.

Conroy said the issue hits close to home for the health system. In 2017, a man shot and killed his elderly mother in an intensive care unit at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in an incident that forced the evacuation of thousands of workers and patients.

Loud said all pediatricians “want to stop the next Uvalde,” referring to the shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school last year.

“That likely entails legislation and policy that does have, actually, in surveys, pretty broad bipartisan support, like waiting periods, background checks, extreme risk protection orders,” he said.

Loud said it’s not about getting rid of guns, but taking steps to reduce the risk. He compared it to enforcing seat belt laws, cracking down on drunk driving and various other ways we’ve made cars safer, without taking them off the roads.

He said gun owners can contact Dartmouth if they need locks for their guns.

“It's the day to day steady drip of these on unsecured weapons that lead to teen and young adult suicides,” he said. “That has been an ongoing scourge below the surface.”

If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available. You can call or text 988 for the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.

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