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After Charleston, Thoughts on Gun Violence – 7/4/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/11/2015

July 4, 2015 4 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 7/11/2015 under the heading “After Charleston, thoughts on gun”.

The Charleston shootings follow on the heels of so many other mass shootings. Without even thinking about it, I recall Newtown, Aurora, Gabby Giffords, Fort Hood, and Virginia Tech. I know there are others I have missed. The pattern is depressingly well-established.

Unfortunately, the response to the shootings has also been predictably defeatist. Supposedly, nothing can be done about gun violence because of the political power of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

I want to suggest a different approach. As I have written previously, gun violence is fundamentally a public health problem. Reducing gun violence should be seen as a public health emergency. No sane society should ignore a problem that is killing 30,000 citizens a year. That figures to 85 Americans killed everyday by gun violence, an absurdly high tally.

Regardless of your position on the Second Amendment and gun rights, I would assume everyone has an interest in bringing down that number.

Professor David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health has outlined a creative agenda for curbing gun violence. He compares reducing gun violence to campaigns against cigarettes, unintentional poisoning, and for motor vehicle safety. Hemenway thinks we could have the same kind of success with curbing gun violence that we have had with other public health campaigns.

Hemenway’s multi-dimensional approach is not the same as any past formula I have seen. I think it is a bit outside the box. He suggests a campaign to de-glorify guns much as was done with cigarettes. He argues that through much of the 20th century, TV, movies and advertising glorified cigarettes as “symbols of modernity, autonomy, power, and sexuality”. The campaign against cigarettes which has included media spots, warning labels, peer stories and celebrity testimonials has been undeniably effective. Hemenway says between 1966-2010, the prevalence of cigarette smoking among U.S. adults has reduced by more than half from 43% to 19%.

The same type of campaign could be run to de-glorify guns which I think are bizarrely venerated here in America. Guns could be associated with weakness, cowardice, irrationality, death and disability. The aftermath of gun violence has been ignored and minimized. There are no television shows about the agony of parents who have lost their children to senseless shootings.

Maybe it is stating the obvious but so many shootings are utterly senseless. Often, they are the quick confluence of bad judgment, passion, snap decision-making and a convenient tool of devastating lethality. A lifetime of regret can follow from a very brief bad moment in time.

While it really deserves a separate column of its own, you do not hear much from the NRA about firearm suicides. Almost 50 Americans a day kill themselves with a gun. I think the too easy availability of firearms to people at risk increases the suicide rate. It is admittedly hard to identify in advance all those who are likely to attempt suicide.

We need to change the associations about guns in the public mind. There are no shortage of negative images which could be employed. Maybe gun violence needs the equivalent image of a Marlboro man dying of lung cancer. It would be good to see ads with Tom Brady, Richard Sherman, Jennifer Lawrence, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, George Clooney and Samuel L. Jackson downing guns. There are way too many casual images of movie stars shooting at other people with a sanitized and unreal ending.

Hemenway has also suggested a new national tax on all purchases of firearms and ammunition. He compares a tax of that nature to the tax on cigarettes. Such a tax could provide a stable revenue source to fund a national endowment to benefit those harmed by gun violence and their families. It could also fund prevention efforts.

In its May/June issue, Mother Jones Magazine focused on the costs of gun violence. The magazine asked Ted Miller, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, to look at the direct and indirect costs of gun violence. For direct costs, Miller included emergency services, police investigations, long-term medical and mental health care as well as court and prison costs. For indirect costs, Miler looked at lost income, losses to employers and impact on quality of life. Miller based amounts on the impact on quality of life from jury awards for pain and suffering to victims of wrongful injury and death.

Miller used data from 2012 and came up with an annual cost of gun violence in America as exceeding $229 billion. Certainly that estimate can be contested but it is hard to argue against some gigantic price tag.

Not surprisingly, there is not good data on the costs of gun violence for victims, their families, their employers and everyone else. The major reason for the lack of good data is political pressure from the NRA and the pro-gun lobby to block research related to firearms. The pro-gun forces have successfully pressured politicians to ban funding for research at the Centers for Disease Control about gun-related injury and death.

Talk about a war on science. How can we even get an objective picture of the harm when an interest group directly involved in the matter of study prohibits any government investigation? I do find it amazing that the gun lobby has gotten away with such a suppression of science. Imagine if the cigarette companies had been able to block research on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. There would be many more people dying today.

Hemenway suggests many other good ideas to heighten gun safety. He proposes key or security code locking devices on guns and reducing magazine clips. I also wonder about firearm personalization technology, including fingerprint readers.I would think the technology could prevent accidental gun deaths and it also could reduce crime because stolen guns with fingerprint readers would render the gun useless.

One other crazy thing: firearms and ammunition are exempt from consumer-oriented safety standards. Neither the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission nor any other federal agency oversees safety regulation for these dangerous products. We have the ridiculous situation where hand-held hair dryers, sleepwear and toys are more scrutinized for danger than guns. In effect, gun manufacturers have carte blanche to sell whatever highly militarized products they want regardless of how inappropriate they are for a civilian market.

Part of the power of the gun rights proponents has been their success in framing the issue. They present all gun matters as a question of individual constitutional rights. They would argue that regulating at all infringes on their fundamental rights. What they are not acknowledging is that no constitutional right is an absolute trump card. All constitutional rights, including the Second Amendment, are subject to some regulation. Non-lawyers might not know it but that is not contested in the legal world.

Nothing I propose here interferes with the Second Amendment rights of citizens who want to deer hunt or do any other lawful hunting. I just think that as demonstrated in frequent mass shooting like Charleston the Unites States has a terrible public health problem with firearms that demands attention.

While gun-related legislative efforts at both the federal and state level have been disappointing, I would encourage advocates to be in it for the long haul. Anyone familiar with legislatures knows that legislative success often only comes after a lengthy history of repeated failures. Nothing stays the same. I believe persistence and rationality will ultimately win out on reducing gun violence.