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Gun Safety: A Public Health Perspective

November 7, 2013

The recent outbreak of mass shootings in schools has reignited the debate over gun ownership and Americans’ right to bear arms. How can such incidents, including the latest one on October 21 at a junior high school in Sparks, Nevada, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. almost a year ago, 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, says Dariush Mozaffarian, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. He goes on to say that involves making guns safer and educating gun owners, establishing strict licensing standards, and conducting thorough background checks. He also says that ad campaigns could improve public awareness about gun safety, and that more careful consideration of how gun violence is portrayed in video games, movies and TV is needed.

Neither guns nor people exist in a vacuum, so efforts to improve gun safety require a multifaceted approach. A relationship exists between a human and a gun, much the way it exists between a human and a car, says Don Ihde, distinguished professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University. Ihde explains 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, guns can be made safer, says Mozaffarian. For example, a gun can have an individualized gun lock, so that only the owner can use them.

Ihde says 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. For example, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, 40 percent of American homes have guns, and in 72 percent of unintentional injuries and deaths, suicides and suicide attempts, the gun was stored in the home of the victim.

The government should restrict the ownership of high-caliber, automatic weapons, Ihde says. He goes on to say 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.

The arm of the law

Every new driver must endure driver education, and pass both a written exam  and a road test in order to get their license. That is not necessarily the case for a gun: 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, unlicensed people can buy guns, 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, says 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 says most say they want to live in a world where it’s impossible for teens to get guns.

Safety education for gun owners and extensive background checks for prospective buyers are important, says Mozaffarian. However, in April, the U.S. Senate struck down the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013, 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.

In response, 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

In the same way it is uncool to drive drunk, it should become uncool to visit a home  where there is an unlocked gun, says Mozaffarian. The efforts of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving have stigmatized driving drunk and being charged with a DUI. People designate drivers for nights out, and a recent radio campaign featuring celebrities urges motorists not to text while driving: “It Can Wait.”

Gun safety could benefit from similar efforts, Mozaffarian says. 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.

Cultural shift

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

Hemenway continues 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 says that although he doubts that the violence portrayed in video games and movies and on 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 says.

A safer country?

And do guns necessarily make the country safer? Or, to rephrase a popular quote from the late science fiction 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, according to Hemenway.  “I think gun carrying can make it harder for inner city police,” he says. He believes police would like to know when there are guns in a household. For example, when responding to a report of domestic violence, police would probably prefer to go to a house without guns, says Hemenway.

Here is an audio clip from my interview with Dr David Hemenway, in which he discusses several topics including the effect of private gun ownership on the effectiveness of a police force.

Hemenway also says that guns beget more guns. People may keep guns for self defense, but if there are fewer guns, there is less need for self defense. “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,” he says. He points 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,” says 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.”

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