Gun violence as a public health issue

Opinion: Columns

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Wayne Vanek

A summary of an article from National Catholic Reporter, Feb. 1-14 issue:

David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, lays out his thesis: Gun violence is a public health threat, and society should tackle it as we have the hazards of motor vehicles, cigarettes and poisons. All three products circulate in society, but we have found ways to make them safer.

He suggests that we move the focus from gun ownership to one of injury prevention.

Public health practitioners, when trying to reduce hazards of consumer products, think it more useful to look at what caused injury rather than who caused it. This will lead to better product design.

It seems with guns today, we are like the 1950s with cars. Manufacturers said then it was all the driver's fault: "Cars don't kill people, people kill people." Public health physicians began inquiring into causes of car injuries. They found:

a. Persons being speared by steering columns

b. Faces ripped apart by shattered glass

c. Persons being thrown out of cars.

Today we have collapsible steering columns, safety glass and seat belts.

We have a horrific gun safety problem. Eighty-five Americans are killed and several hundred wounded by guns each day. Firearms are the second leading killer of American youth. Compared to other developed countries, the U.S. rates of crime like assault, robbery or sexual attack is average. The difference is the lethality of the crime. The U.S. has the most guns, weakest laws and most homicides of all the countries. So crimes, acts of passion, domestic disputes, suicide attempts, etc., often end in fatalities.

In an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jan. 7), Dr. Hemenway makes 12 recommendations to reduce gun harm. Here are a few:

a. Physicians counseling on storage and safe use of firearms, comparable to what is provided for poisons.

b. Require guns to have child-proof locking devices — like the child-proof packaging of medicines and poisons.

c. Require gun users, like the drivers of cars, to be licensed.

d. A national tax on guns and ammo (similar to the tobacco tax) to better address the societal costs of gun violence and provide funding for gun-safety classes and violence-reduction classes.

Just as the campaigns against smoking and drunk driving have been successful in the last 50 years, so any harm-reduction strategy for firearms would also require changing social norms.

However, to design effective public health policies requires data. Since the 1990s, many barriers have been set up, preventing the collection of the necessary data. All firearm research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was curtailed by Congress after the gun industry sponsored the bill that cut $2.6 million from the CDC injury budget — the exact amount the CDC had been spending annually on gun research.

Congress has also stopped the CDC from asking any questions about firearms in its Behavioral Risk Facts Survey. Yet other agencies collect a wealth of information after every car or plane accident. Since 2011, Congress prohibits the National Institute of Health (NIH) from promoting or advocating gun control. This congressional prohibition came after the NIH-backed study drew links between alcoholism and gun violence.

The 2005 law, Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms, grants the firearm industry broad immunity from consumer liability, which eliminates incentives for manufacturers to voluntarily make their products safer.

An example of this is the fact that there are 100 patents for child-proofing guns, but the gun industry has resisted using any of them.

Reader Comments

13 Comments - Add Your Comment

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4 Freedom  

Posted: April 28th, 2013 11:28 AM

Wouldn't any tax be arbitrary? Why do control advocates think that gun owners would be the only ones paying the tax? Why don't those that feel gun safety is a health issue create a non profit and set up gun safety clinics rather than tax people that don't follow their moral code? Why does one of the most liberally entrenched cities in one of the most gun controlled states have the most gun deaths?

Ray Simpson from Oak Park  

Posted: April 26th, 2013 4:52 PM

Dylan - please explain how the CDC has any expertise in gun violence? They study viruses flues and anything else that might have a vaccine to cure it. Gun violence is a social ( or anti social) activity that would be better studied by social workers or psychologists. The notion that gun violence can be cured is silly. The people who are violent will use what ever they can get their hands on to hurt others. Guns knives, stones spears blow guns and on and on - eliminating one weapon will just require using another.

Dylan Bellisle from Forest Park, Illinois  

Posted: April 26th, 2013 4:14 PM

Bart, Study of many objects has led to change, the author highlighted this with cars. There are things that COULD lead to less misuse or accidental use of a firearm - ie. recognition technology that only allows the authorized user to use it, trigger locks. Furthermore, the study of what environmental circumstances increase the misuse of guns - ie. presence of gangs, poverty, abandon buildings, education levels, amount of teenagers not attending school, the list goes on. Some of it may seem logical, but its not always, and without study you cannot make an argument that a change in policy would have an affect on gun homicides and injuries.

Bart Carlson from River Forest  

Posted: April 24th, 2013 11:19 AM

What jumps at me is why the CDC would be operating outside it's mission and spending $ 2.6 M on studying gun injuries in the first place. What's to study? Misuse a gun, and injury occurs. Your tax $$ at work...no wonder we're trillions in debt...

SteakBurger from Oak Park  

Posted: April 24th, 2013 11:06 AM

Frankly, the thesis upon which the article is written is false. To view gun violence as a "public health" threat is an illogical approach, though it clearly makes Mr Hemenway feel good about himself & likely drives some grant money to the HICRC. Many issues to explore in regard to violence, but this is an ineffective, simplistic approach to a far more complex problem. We need to think a bit deeper, & focus on things like the destruction of the black family by 60's Democrat party social policy.

Brian Slowiak from Oak Park  

Posted: April 24th, 2013 10:49 AM

Physicians put their pants and panty hose on one leg at a time like everyone else. A celebrated surgeon co won the Nobel Prize for medicine for lobotomy surgery.The surgeon who amputated the wrong leg of a patient in Florida had to pay$250K and was suspended for 6 mos.What do you call a doctor who graduates 1st in their class?Doctor.what do you call a doctor who graduates last in their class.Doctor. Racist Doctors? in my opinion,Dr Frank Minyard of New Orleans,coroner.

Dylan  

Posted: April 24th, 2013 9:37 AM

John, Your tax argument doesn't hold up either. Firstly, we already pay sales tax on guns, so they are already taxed. Secondly, you have a right to OBTAIN a gun, not a right TO a gun. Meaning you have a right to purchase it. Your right to vote is not something that you purchase, or obtain, you just can. A tax would, and already is held up in court. Now, what COULD matter is how much the tax is. If it makes firearm purchase prohibitive to a majority, then that is a different story.

Dylan  

Posted: April 24th, 2013 9:34 AM

John, "Criminals will never purchase firearms legally" Committing a crime means you didn't do something legally. That argument doesn't hold weight. So since criminals don't obey laws we should just get rid of all laws? Making it more difficult to get a firearm makes it more expensive on the blackmarket, meaning less access and less guns on the streets in the hands of those who may use them illegally.

Dylan  

Posted: April 24th, 2013 9:30 AM

A tax on the manufacturers and/or sellers would be more appropriate. If you are going to be in the business of selling something that can and does have a negative financial and human impact on society then you should have to help pay for the cost of that. A tax on profit may be the best avenue, don't go after the consumer.

Dylan  

Posted: April 24th, 2013 9:28 AM

Interesting article. I don't think I am on board in terms of physicians counseling on storage. They would need new training for that. That isn't the field of medicine. Child-proofing. Sure. Do we know that there is a big issue of children getting access to and using guns? Licensure. Okay. How would this be different from what we have today? Mandated training and/or proof you know how to use the gun?

Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: April 24th, 2013 9:14 AM

Not in favor of utilizing the scope of medicine to instruct on gun safety. This is not their area of expertise, this is more a function of our local police departments. I know we are looking for answers but this is getting ridiculous!

joe from south oak park  

Posted: April 24th, 2013 8:58 AM

There is nothing preventing physicians from asking and providing information about firearm storage currently, all new firearms come with a locking device from the manufacturer, in Illinois legal gun owners are licensed and in most other states a license is required to carry, Gun owners currently pay for safety classes. legal owners are not the problem here for the societal cost of gun violence. How about instituting a gang tax instead and then going after the gangs on tax evasion.

John Stelling from Wheeling, Illinois  

Posted: April 24th, 2013 8:16 AM

a. Physicians counseling on storage and safe use of firearms, comparable to what is provided for poisons. I barley trust my doctor to give me sound medical advice, I am going to trust she knows more about firearms than I do? The vast majority of gun owners know far more about the safe operation of their firearms than any doctor could ever know. Moreover, you have enough different manuals of arms involved in different types of firearms that such advise would offer very little practical knowledge. b. Require guns to have child-proof locking devices ?" like the child-proof packaging of medicines and poisons. Safe storage laws, like those of DC have already been challenged in the courts. It is impossible to make a firearm itself totally "child" proof. c. Require gun users, like the drivers of cars, to be licensed. You cant require a licence for a right, taxation of rights in the form of a poll tax has already been ruled unconstitutional. Even if such a requirment were passed it would not hold up in the courts. d. A national tax on guns and ammo (similar to the tobacco tax) to better address the societal costs of gun violence and provide funding for gun-safety classes and violence-reduction classes. Most of the "societal" costs are caused by criminals using firearms in an illegal matter. How does it make sense to tax law abiding gun owners for the misdeeds of criminals? Criminals will never purchase firearms legally so they will not be the ones picking up the tab, it will be those who have never and more than likly WILL never inflict any "societal" costs. Moreover, taxation of rights in the form of a poll tax has already been ruled unconstitutional. Even if such taxes were levied it would not hold up in the courts. If you want to protect children, how about firearms safety classes in the schools beyond "don't touch them" ?

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