Public health and guns

Vehicle safety and anti-smoking efforts may show ways to reduce gun violence

Published Jan 13, 2013 at 04:00AM

In a nation where opinions about guns are deeply polarized, middle ground can be harder to find than an Oregon truffle.

In response to recent mass shootings, politicians and lobbyists on both sides of the gun debate are crafting new plans and jockeying for support. Gun control advocates want a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. The National Rifle Association wants more citizens armed and ready to shoot down psychopaths.

For me, guns evoke conflicting emotions. I’m a new mother who shudders to imagine weapons in my son’s future school. I’m also a hunter who sees social value in responsible gun ownership.

Last week, an unlikely group of experts weighed in: doctors.

They managed to side-step some of the controversy to offer commonsense ideas for reducing gun violence without slashing gun ownership.

In the Journal of the American Medical Association, three doctors from the Harvard School of Public Health published an article that accurately defined gun violence as a public health issue.

Each day, they pointed out, 85 Americans are killed by guns. That figure — which includes suicides, homicides and accidents — is more than three times the death toll in the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn. And it’s appallingly high, to gun collectors and pacifists alike.

“Gun violence arises from sociocultural, educational, behavioral and product safety issues that transcend gun ownership alone,” the authors wrote.

For solutions, they turned to major public health initiatives that have succeeded in curbing tobacco use, reducing unintentional poisonings and improving motor vehicle safety.

In each of those efforts, the researchers identified strategies that worked, then figured out how to apply them to reduce gun violence.

For example, they noted that cigarette smoking among U.S. adults dropped from 43 percent in 1966 to 19 percent in 2010. One tactic that helped was comprehensive patient education and counseling, so individuals who wanted to stop smoking could find resources to help them quit.

Similarly, the researchers said, primary care physicians could be trained to educate patients in gun safety and violence prevention. Simple actions such as asking whether a patient is storing guns safely could make a difference.

And just as childproof packaging on medications helped reduce accidental poisonings, technology such as key or security code locking devices on guns themselves could help keep firearms out of the wrong hands.

These recommendations are not without controversy. One reason smoking has declined so drastically is that steep taxes have been levied on tobacco products, making their use cost-prohibitive for many. The authors remarked that the taxes already imposed on gun and ammunition sales “are neither comprehensive nor representative of the true external costs of gun ownership,” and suggested higher fees. As with any new tax, that proposal won’t be popular.

The researchers admitted that there are significant differences between, say, tobacco and guns. For example, they acknowledged that while there is no safe dose of tobacco, guns, on the other hand, can be used safely.

Indeed, given the vast number of firearms in the U.S. — 300 million, or nearly one for every man, woman and child in the country — most guns are stored and handled safely.

To be clear, implementing the suggestions in this paper would not suddenly eliminate gun deaths. But the approach itself is refreshing.

It shows that perhaps there is a rational, evidence-based, life-saving compromise waiting to be unearthed.