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Gun Safety: A Public Health Perspective

October 30, 2013

The recent outbreak of mass shootings, including one that occurred on October 21 at a junior high school in Sparks, Nevada, has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun ownership and Americans’ right to bear arms. How can incidents such as the recent one in Nevada, and the shooting that happened last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., be prevented in a country where the right to own a gun is constitutionally guaranteed?

The first step is addressing gun safety from a public health standpoint, using a multi-pronged approach, similar to that used to reduce the number of car accident fatalities, said Dariush Mozaffarian, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Such an approach involves making guns safer and educating gun owners and establishing strict licensing standards and conducting thorough background checks. Public awareness campaigns about gun safety and more careful consideration of how gun violence is portrayed in popular media such as video games, movies and TV are also necessary.

A multifaceted approach is required because neither guns nor humans exist in a vacuum. A relationship exists between a human and a gun, much the way it exists between a human and a car, said Don Ihde, distinguished professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University. Ihde explained that humans plus technology, and the range of interactions that can occur between them, determine what patterns of behavior will occur.

Safer guns

Cars now come with standard safety features such as seat belts, air bags, and collapsible fenders. In the same way, said Mozaffarian, guns can be made safer. For example, guns can have individualized gun locks so that only the owner can use it.

Ihde said that a cowboy mentality exists in this country: “You need it ready in case there is an intruder!” But the statistics show that the likelihood of accidentally being shot and killed in a home with guns is much higher than in one without, or with the guns locked.

The ownership of high-caliber, automatic weapons should also be restricted. Ihde said that people may claim they need assault rifles in case the government comes after them; if the government does come after them, however, it will use weapons that will overwhelm anything that a private citizen would own.

Educating owners

Driver education and the passing of both written exams and road tests are required to be able to drive a car. That is not necessarily the case for a gun. Gun safety land licensing laws vary by state, and federal laws are weak. These regulations are listed according to state by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action.

It is remarkably easy to acquire a weapon; for example, Instagram has developed into a thriving market for the sale of firearms. In addition, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, guns can be sold to unlicensed people provided that they live in the same state as the seller.

David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that he and his colleagues have asked inner city kids in surveys how easy it is to get a gun, and most of them say its pretty easy. He also mentioned that most said they want to live in a world where its impossible for teens like them to have access to guns.

Safety education for gun owners and extensive background checks for prospective buyers are important, said Mozaffarian. However, in April, the U.S. Senate struck down S. 649 , which lobbied for limits on the sale of automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines and more stringent background checks on potential gun owners. The National Rifle Association, which did not respond to several requests for comment, vowed in a press release to protect the rights of Americans to bear arms “for self defense and other legitimate purposes” when those rights are threatened.

Raising awareness

The efforts of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving have stigmatized driving drunk and being charged with a DUI. It is now considered uncool to drive drunk, and people designate drivers for nights out. In addition, a recent radio campaign featuring celebrities urges motorists not to text while driving: “It Can Wait.”

Similar efforts need to happen for gun safety, said Mozaffarian. Such efforts could include running educational programs in schools about gun safety, and having celebrities speak out against gun violence. Police could visit schools and gun shows. In the same way it is uncool to drive drunk, it should be uncool to go to a house where there is an unlocked gun.

Cultural shift

Violence, including gun violence, is glorified in TV, movies, and video games in the U.S. Research has shown that violent media is not good for kids, because It tends to make them more aggressive, said Hemenway, who is also the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

Hemenway continued by saying that all first world countries face the issue of how violence is portrayed in the popular media, but what makes the U.S. different from other countries is that it has such a huge homicide problem because of its guns.

Ihde said that although he doubts that the violence portrayed in video games, movies, and TV is very influential, it is part of a broader culture in this country that runs very deep. “We have a deeply rooted notion in our culture that we do not like police controls or things of that sort,” he said.

A safer country?

And do guns necessarily make the country safer? Or, to rephrase a popular quote from the late author Robert Heinlein, is an armed society necessarily a polite society?

The answer appears to be no. Privately owned guns make the police force less effective.  “I think gun carrying can make it harder for inner city police,” Hemenway said. He went on to say that police would like to know when there are guns in a household, particularly in situations involving intimate partner violence. “I think that they would much prefer where there is domestic violence, that they go to a house without guns.” he said.

Guns beget more guns. People may keep guns for self defense, but if there are fewer guns, there is less of a need for self defense. “I think that there is some evidence that when some people are armed, it increases the likelihood that if you are a criminal you want to be armed, or if you are a gang member you want to be armed,” said Hemenway. He pointed out that the reason a lot of inner city kids carry guns is that they are afraid because others have guns.

Arming individuals could also threaten Americans’ right to free speech, the power of which is predicated on non-violence. For example, the power of the Occupy Wall Street Movement rested on the fact that the protesters were unarmed. What would have happened if the protestors in Zuccotti Park had guns? Chaos.

“I think that the evidence is overwhelming that arming average people tends to increase the overall lethal violence in society,” said Hemenway. “The evidence is very strong that where there are more guns and weaker laws, there is more homicide in the U.S. The same as in households. Where there are more guns there’s more homicides in households. All other things being equal.”

Here is an audio clip from my interview with Dr David Hemenway:


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